Skip to main content

Full text of "The Masked Rider Neil Peart( 600dpi)"

See other formats


rife mas 

ks4 ri*9r 









THE MASKED RIDER 


Cycling in West Africa 


by Neil Peart 


Pottersfield Press 
Lawrencetown Beach 
Nova Scotia, Canada 



Copyright © Neil Peart 1996 


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or trans- 
mitted in any form, by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photo- 
copying, or by an information storage or retrieval system, without permission 
from the publisher. 

Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data 

Peart, Neil. 

Masked rider 

ISBN 1-895900-02-6 

1. Peart, Neil — Journeys — Africa, West. 2. Africa, West — Description and 
travel. 3. Bicycle touring — Africa, West. I. Tide 

DT472.P42 1996 966.0379 C96-950140-4 


Acknowledgement is made for use of quoted material from the following: 
Aristotle. Ethics. London: Penguin, 1953. 

Van Gogh, Vincent. Dear Theo. Edited by Irving Stone. New York: Doubleday, 1937. 
Crowther, Geoff. Africa on a Shoestring. South Yarra, Australia: Lonely Planet, 1986. 


Cover design by Hugh Syme 

Back cover photograph: “Checking the map with the Chief of Tchevi” by 

David Mozer 

Inset by Elenora Alberto 

All other photographs by the author 


Pottersfield Press gratefully acknowledges the ongoing support of the Nova 
Scotia Department of Education, Cultural Affairs Division, as well as the 
Canada Council and Department of Canadian Heritage. 

Pottersfield Press 
Lawrencetown Beach 
RR 2 Porters Lake 
Nova Scotia, Canada BOJ 2S0 

Printed in Canada 
Fourth Printing, 1997 



To my mother and father 
Who brought me up to know better... 


Continuing thanks to Mark Riebling and Danny Peart 
for criticism and advice 
And to Jackie and Selena 
for allowing the time 




PART ONE : WHITE MAN, WHERE YOU GOING? 


INFERNO 19 

DANCE PARTY 37 

HELL HOLE 57 

HOTEL HAPPY 71 

THE LARGER BOWL 79 

PART TWO: EPIPHANIES AND APOSTASIES 

EPIPHANY AT VESPERS 95 

THE MISSIONARY POSITION 1 1 1 

ENCOUNTERS 131 

THE GOOD HEART 155 

THE PAVED ROAD 165 

PEOPLE ON THE BUS 175 

THE BEATEN TRACK 193 

QUIXOTE AND QUASIMODO 203 

PART THREE: WHITE MAN, WHAT YOU DOING? 

WATERMELON AND SATELLITES 215 

TOIL AND TROUBLE 229 

THE LIZARDS ARE FAT AT WAZA 245 

AFRICAN NIGHTMARES 263 

PARISIAN DREAMS 277 


















Cameroon 




It is said that one travels to East Africa for the animals, and to 
West Africa for the people. My first dream of Africa was a siren-call 
from the East African savanna ... great herds of wildlife shimmering 
in the heat haze of the Serengeti, the Rift Valley lakes swarming 
with birds, the icy summit of Kilimanjaro. So I went there, and I 
loved it. The following year I went looking for an interesting way to 
visit West Africa, to learn more about the African people — the ani- 
mals drew me to Africa, but the people brought me back. 

After much searching I found a name: Bicycle Africa, and signed 
up for a month-long tour of “Cameroon: Country of Contrasts.” At 
the end of it I swore I’d never do anything like that again — but the 
following year I forgot my vow, and returned to bicycle through 
Tbgo, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast. 

Cycling is a good way to travel anywhere, but especially in Af- 
rica; you are independent and mobile, and yet travel at “people 
speed” — fast enough to move on to another town in the cooler 
morning hours, but slow enough to meet the people: the old farmer 
at the roadside who raises his hand and says “You are welcome,” the 
tireless woman who offers a shy smile to a passing cyclist, the chil- 
dren whose laughter transcends the humblest home. The uncondi- 
tional welcome to tired travelers is part of the charm, but it is also 
what is simply African: the villages and markets, the way people live 
and work, their cheerful (or at least stoic) acceptance of adversity, 
and their rich culture: the music, the magic, the carvings — the 
masks of Africa. 

Africa is such a network of illusions, a double-faced mask. It is 
as difficult to see into it as it is to see out of it. Tb those who’ve never 
been there it is an utter mystery, a continent veiled in myths and 
mistaken impressions, but it is equally obscure to those who have 
never been anywhere else. It used to be said that electronic media 
would bring the world closer together, but too often the focus on the 
sensational only distorts the reality — drives us farther apart. That 
is why in Ghana the children followed me down the street chanting 
“Rambo! Rambo!” and that is why Canadians look at me as if I were 
a lunatic when I tell them I’ve been cycling in Africa — they can 
only picture it from wildlife documentaries, TV images of starvation 
camps, and old Tarzan movies. 



Africa fascinates me — in the true sense, I suppose, as a snake 
is said to transfix its prey. And the more times I return, the more 
countries I visit, the more the place perplexes me. Africa has so 
much magic, but so much madness. Yet I keep returning, and surely 
will again. This attraction is compelling and seems to grow stronger, 
but, like any lasting relationship, it is no longer blind. 

And maybe that’s always true. After the first infatuation we’re 
always most critical of what we feel the strongest about. It’s too of- 
ten the case in relationships, and certainly regarding one’s own fam- 
ily or country. You can criticize your own, but don’t let anyone else 
try it. That’s when love shows its teeth. 

If my attraction to Africa is no longer blind, it is still blurry. 
From within and without, Africa is as much the “Dark Continent” as 
it was two hundred years ago — hard to see into, hard to see out of. 
The mask obscures a face which is so complex and contradictory; it 
takes a lot of traveling even to get a sense of it. And traveling in Af- 
rica is, by necessity, adventure travel. 

Some people travel for pleasure, and sometimes find adventure; 
others travel for adventure, and sometimes find pleasure. The best 
part of adventure travel, it seems to me, is thinking about it. A jour- 
ney to a remote place is exciting to look forward to, certainly re- 
warding to look back upon, but not always pleasurable to live 
minute by minute. Reality has a tendency to be so uncomfortably 
real. 

But that’s the price of admission — you have to do it. One rea- 
son for making such a journey is to experience the mystery of un- 
known places, but another, perhaps more important, reason is to 
take yourself out of your “context” — home, job, and friends. Travel 
is its own reward, but traveling among strangers can show you as 
much about yourself as it does about them. Ib your companions and 
the people you encounter you are the stranger; to them you are a 
brand-new person. 

That’s something to think about, and if you try you might 
glimpse yourself that way, without a past, without a context, with- 
out a mask. That can be a little scary, no question, but you may get 
a look behind someone else’s mask as well, and that can be even 


scarier. 



Part One 





Northern Cameroon — Country estate in picturesque village. Spectacular 
view. Traditional design in stone , Old World charm, room for the whole family. 
Open fireplace, rooftop pantry, close to fields and market. Only one mile to 
modern CARE well, easy commute to Roumsiki, scenic three-day walk to 
telephone. Mexican hats included. MAKE AN OFFER ! 


18 





The first traveler’s tale of Cameroon reaches us from the fifth 
century B.C., when the Phoenician explorer Hanno led an expedi- 
tion around the west coast of Africa. His fleet of sixty ships reached 
present-day Senegal, and Hanno attempted to land there, but was 
soon driven back by the local warriors. He sailed on past forested 
mountains and wide rivers, afraid to go ashore because of the hippo- 
potamuses and crocodiles (it would appear Hanno wasn’t the most 
stalwart of explorers). He came upon an island which looked safe at 
first, but when he tried to land he was frightened off again, this 
time by “fires and strange music.” And once more, he ran away, stat- 
ing, 


Sailing quickly away thence, we passed by a 
country burning with fires and perfumes and 
streams of fire supplied then fell into the sea. The 
country was impassable on account of the great 
heat. We sailed quickly thence being much terrified 
and passing on for four days we discovered at night 
a country full of fire. In the middle was a lofty fire 
which seemed to touch the stars. 


Next morning, just before Hanno “sailed quickly away” again, 
this time for home, he saw a mountain of fire which he named 
Theon Ochema : the Chariot of the Gods. Being “much terrified,” 
Hanno was no doubt given to exaggeration, but Mount Cameroon, 
the only live volcano in West Africa, is said to be that great moun- 
tain of fire which kept the tourists out of Cameroon for another two 
thousand years. 

Then, in the sixteenth century, the Portuguese navigator Vasco 
da Gama cruised by and dropped anchor in the Wouri River. He 
stood at the rail and admired the small crustaceans in the water, 


19 



The Masked Rider 


and decided to name the river after them: Rio-des-Cameroes, “River 
of Prawns.” Thus the Portuguese called their “discovery” Cameroes, 
until 1887 when the Germans claimed the land and called it 
Kamerun. After World War I it was taken from Germany and di- 
vided between the French, who called it Cameroun, and the English, 
who called it The Cameroons. What the people who lived there 
called it is not recorded, but no doubt it had nothing to do with 
small crustaceans. 


By the time I got to Cameroon, in November 1988, the country 
was once again in the hands of the people who lived there. I saw no 
mountain of fire, and I saw no prawns, but my first impression of 
Cameroon was not unlike Hanno’s: heat and darkness and fires, a 
strange inferno which did seem to suggest “sailing quickly away 
thence.” The air was heavy, even at sunset, and the exertion of as- 
sembling my bicycle outside the airport left me dripping. Among a 
confusion of upended frames, wheels, bike-bags, and tools, a crowd 
of boys gathered around to watch me and a few other North Ameri- 
cans struggle with our handlebar stems and seat posts. I kept an 
uneasy watch on my possessions, and thought about cycling around 
Cameroon for a month in that kind of heat. A month can be a long 
time. 

We pedaled away from the airport into the sudden equatorial 
night, following the broken shoulder of the highway into the city. A 
few dim streetlamps lit the skeletons of abandoned cars and uneven 
rows of gray plank and cinder-block houses. Corrugated-metal roofs 
gleamed among the looming, ivy-hung trees. Scattered oil-drum 
fires flickered on dark faces, flashing eyes, and teeth bared in de- 
monic laughter that was drowned by the music which raged out 
from everywhere. Indecipherable wailing chants and pulsing 
rhythms chugged out of straining loudspeakers as I tried to find a 
path through the crowds. People turned to stare, evidently surprised 
to see a white man in a funny hat riding a bicycle. 


20 



Neil Peart 


One of the oil-drum fires lighted a member of our group at the 
roadside, where he had stopped to ask directions. The light flickered 
on his curly dark hair and beard, framing close-set eyes and vaguely 
Middle-Eastern features. That was David, our guide from Bicycle Af- 
rica — also, we learned, its founder, director, and secretary. “My of- 
fice looks suspiciously like my bedroom,” he confessed with a laugh. 

Only later did David tell us that “Cameroon: Country of Con- 
trasts” was “the most difficult bicycle tour on the market.” He had 
been advertising it for two years and could only attract four custom- 
ers. Us. He had led a tour of Cameroon just once before, two years 
earlier, with only three clients, one of whom, like Hanno, had turned 
around and gone home in less than a week. Had I known these 
things as I followed David’s white helmet through the shadowy 
crowds, my excitement might have been tempered. But that’s the 
good part about the future: it doesn’t have to contain any flaws until 
it becomes the present. 

I had enough to worry about in the dark here-and-now of 
crowded streets, sudden taxis, motorcycles, and crater-sized pot- 
holes. Everything seemed to blare like car horns: the music, the 
smells, the faces, the headlights, all in dizzy confusion. I tried to 
concentrate on my riding and keep an eye on David up ahead. I 
didn’t want to miss a turn and get lost in the gauntlet of madness 
which seemed to comprise Douala, the largest city in Cameroon. 

We made our way to the Hotel Kontchupe, a chain of low build- 
ings on a narrow street above the waterfront, where I could see the 
lights in the rigging of a small freighter. We parked our bicycles on a 
terrace fenced with black wrought iron. A mural decorated one mus- 
tard-colored wall, a montage of musical instruments, masks, and a 
pre-Cubist angular figure raising what looked like a martini glass. 

Three of us moved along the terrace to the Cafe des Sports while 
David spoke with the manager in “survival French,” the same kind I 
possessed. Still too early in the evening for nightlife; the bar was 
empty and smelled of stale beer and cigarette smoke. The young 
bartender was just putting on a record, and West African rhythms 
pumped out of the speakers. The walls were decorated with lurid 
black-light posters of skeletal bikers and voluptuous leather-clad fe- 
males. After a long look around, the three of us took a seat at the 
bar. 


21 



The Masked Rider 


Usually when I begin a trip like that, the hardest thing is learn- 
ing everybody’s name. You meet ten or twenty people at one time 
and their names float right through your head, or, as often happens, 
your brain assigns them names which suit them, but aren’t neces- 
sarily theirs. You put on an open-friendly face, try to make neutral 
conversation, and wait for someone else to address them by name. 
This time, though, it would be easy — only five people on the tour, 
and I knew two of their names already: David’s and my own. 

I helped my two companions order drinks, as they were from 
California, where French is normally limited to Chardonnay and 
Perrier. I was getting their names now. Leonard was the tall black 
guy with the thick rimless glasses, and Elsa was the older woman, 
slender, with short pale hair and sharp features. No problem. Then 
a commotion outside intruded, even over the loud music, and the 
three of us moved to the door. A Japanese taxi was pulled up in front 
of the hotel, and David was helping the driver lift a boxed bicycle 
out of the trunk. Our fifth rider had arrived, and she stood looking 
on, her hands moving as if she wanted to help but didn’t know what 
to do. I couldn’t remember her name from the roster, but David 
came to my rescue. “This is Annie.” While I shook her hand I tried to 
stamp it into my memory. Okay, Annie. Leonard is the tall black 
guy; Elsa is the older woman, and Annie is the long dark hair with 
the open-mouth smile. 

Annie joined us in the bar, still smiling, her hands still tending 
to move as if she wanted to help but didn’t know what to do. Some- 
one asked about her job, described on the roster as systems analyst. 

“The ultimate post-modern job description,” I said with a laugh. 

“Um, well ... heh heh ... it’s the best definition I could think of 
for a kind of ... um ... everything job,” Annie said, and we nodded 
and smiled and made small talk with the conscious politeness of 
strangers who know they are going to be living together for a 
month. A month can be a long time. 

David returned to lead us to our rooms, back into the hotel side 
of the building and through a maze of stairs and corridors, some- 
thing M.C. Escher might have drawn. One room for the men, one for 
the women, and all of us sharing a dingy toilet which crouched in a 
closet along the zigzag hall. An arched doorway led into our room: 
green linoleum floor, dark ceiling of peeling wood, and walls of 


22 



Neil Peart 


grimy white stucco decorated with an incongruous Afro-Arabian- 
gypsy-disco kind of hanging. Naked bulbs in the corners spread 
feeble light down over two drooping beds. The bar downstairs was 
warming up for the night, and the music vibrated up through the 
walls. 

Having inspected the room, we decided to go out for something 
to eat. Just as we stepped off the terrace of the Hotel Kontchupe, 
one of a group of men standing there called out to us. It appeared to 
be a warning, but the rudimentary French which David and I pos- 
sessed could not decipher it. Then I realized he was pointing at my 
leather beltpack, and telling me to be careful against thieves. 

Now I had just finished reading a section in Africa On A Shoe- 
string on Douala: 

“It isn’t a particularly pleasant place: mosqui- 
toes and muggings are both problems at night, so 
watch out. Even during the day you may well find 
suspicious-looking people following you around wait- 
ing for the right opportunity.” 

So although my bag was firmly attached around my waist, I 
closed one hand around it and put on what I hoped was a menacing 
face. As we turned the corner into the main street, David suggested 
that in a place like Douala he made it a point to walk down the 
middle of the street at night. It seemed like an excellent idea. 

Unlike the part of town we had ridden through earlier, this was 
not an area of nightlife. No inferno here; in the humid half-light it 
wore the air of a decadent avenue after midnight. Lone cars whisked 
by at intervals. The sparse streetlights were further attenuated by 
thick trees, ferns growing between the limbs and vines along the 
branches. Most of the store windows were protected by iron grilles, 
guarding displays of cheap furniture, appliances, stereo equipment, 
and even a croissant shop. 

A row of trestle-tables along the sidewalk offered the only life 
and the only visible commerce, a kind of on-the-street convenience 
store selling food, drinks, and cigarettes. David spoke to a thread- 


23 



The Masked Rider 


bare man who tended a glowing brazier, and we sat down on a rough 
wooden bench while he cracked eggs into a pan. 

The dark boulevard was called the Boulevard du President 
Ahmadou Ahidjo, and Fd learned something about that name. 
Ahidjo had been the president of Cameroon from independence in 
1961 until 1982, when he stepped down in favor of his chosen suc- 
cessor, the current president Paul Biya. For some reason Ahidjo 
changed his mind, and in 1984 attempted a coup from outside the 
country. Though unsuccessful, there was bloody fighting in the 
streets of Yaounde, the capital city, and the aftermath was sweeping. 
Ahidjo had represented the Islamic northerners, many of whom 
were purged from the government. Strikes were banned, the na- 
tional press became a propaganda puppet, foreign journalists came 
under continual harassment, and the government adopted unlimited 
powers to suppress dissidence. Amnesty International claims that 
Cameroon keeps hundreds of political prisoners imprisoned without 
trial. The most visible effect to us would be that, because the coup 
had been engineered from outside Cameroon, a deep suspicion of for- 
eigners was forged. For the next month we would travel under the 
shadow of that xenophobia. 

The omelette man delivered his wares one at a time, lifting the 
fried circles of smashed eggs onto plastic plates, then passing us a 
boxful of cutlery. The omelette was excellent, spiced with sausage 
and pimento. By the glow of a kerosene lamp, small talk flickered 
among our group, and I smiled to be alone among strangers once 
again, in a place Fd barely heard of just a few months before. 

We strolled a little farther along the quiet street, everything in- 
distinct and a little spooky in the shadow of the trees, and reached a 
corner where a closed gas station served as a gathering place for a 
crowd of lounging youths. When they turned toward us and began to 
mutter among themselves, David suggested it might be prudent to 
retrace our steps to the hotel. 

The walls of our room still rocked with the exuberant music 
from the downstairs bar, which had modulated into a series of 
American ’50s rock. But I had no trouble falling into a deep sleep, 
even to the throbbing lullaby of “Rock Around The Clock.” 



Neil Peart 


Though the Hotel Kontchupe was in the heart of the city, I 
awoke to the sound of roosters, as I would nearly every morning in 
Cameroon. We packed our belongings into our panniers and hung 
them on the bikes, then pedaled a short way down Boulevard de 
President Ahidjo to the croissant shop. The morning was already 
hot, though the sky was white with overcast, as we lined our bikes 
together against a tree and took a table by the street. 

People hurried past along the sidewalk, the men wearing west- 
ern-style trousers and light-colored shirts, though a few wore the 
long Islamic robes of white cotton. Some women dressed in blouses 
and modest skirts, but most seemed to be clad in the colorful print 
wraps called pagnes, which covered them from the waist to the 
ankles, with a matching headscarf and a plain blouse. They were 
handsome people, strong well-formed bodies walking proudly, and 
their features were often arrayed in a nearly circular symmetry of 
mouth and eyebrows, sometimes suggesting a moon-face. We looked 
raw and pink and conspicuous, except for Leonard, and men and 
women alike turned to look at us. But these were sophisticated ur- 
banites. They never broke stride. 

After strong coffee and rolls, we climbed back on the bicycles 
and rode out into the traffic. Concrete buildings of two or three 
storeys were painted in pale colors, but stained by mold and smoke, 
their walls hung with crumbling balconies and weathered shutters. 
Slender palms curved overhead, while giant ferns and exotic shrubs 
crowded over the walls like clusters of green swords. I moved in be- 
hind Leonard, and as we pedaled through town I watched his gray 
T-shirt darken with sweat. 

We covered the last-minute errands: changing money, buying 
the postcards and stamps which would not be available where we 
were going. During a quick tour of the artisan’s market we were 
urged by the voices and gestures of the merchants to spend some 
time and money with them, but we only scanned the carvings, 
spears, masks, drums, and brass figurines. As David pointed out, “If 
you’re thinking seriously about buying anything, you’d better think 
seriously about carrying it around for a thousand miles.” 

By mid-morning the heat had become an electric blanket, and 
even the trees appeared to droop over the roadway, wilting in the 


2b 



The Masked Rider 


humid swelter. It was already apparent that Elsa was going to have 
trouble, as we waited for her at every intersection and stop. (Basic 
rule of bike touring: Always wait for the next rider at a turn, and 
the last rider should never be left alone.) But, at sixty years old, 
Elsa was entitled to allowances, and a slower rider is not necessarily 
a problem among a faster group. You see more by stopping occasion- 
ally to wait for them than you would by pedaling steadily along, and 
it can be more relaxing to hang back and take it easy. I made a men- 
tal resolution to try to be more relaxed in my own pace, not be so 
driven and urgent to reach the destination every day. I would take 
time to enjoy it; I would stay back with Elsa. 

At last we were on our way out of town. A long, crumbling 
causeway traversed the Wouri River (the one Vasco da Gama had 
named the River of Prawns) wide and shallow near its delta, then 
led us into a low-lying coastal region. Heavy waving reeds and 
grasses on either side of the road gave way to tall palms and opaque 
deciduous trees. Occasional patches of pond and swamp opened 
among the greenery, and made a home for water birds like the 
Hamerkop, a peculiar bird I’d come to know in East Africa. 

The Hamerkop is a small brown heron, named for its ice-axe- 
shaped head. It is known as “The Lightning Bird,” or “The King of 
Birds” to Africans, and is enshrined in myth and legend. East Afri- 
cans call it the King of Birds because of its palatial taste in resi- 
dences, for each year a pair of Hamerkops selects a tree overhanging 
the water, then spends three months (a long time in birdland) build- 
ing a roughly spherical mass of sticks up to six feet in diameter, 
with a small side entrance. Once the family has been raised and the 
home abandoned, it will be replaced by a new palace every year, and 
the huge nest will provide tenement living for other creatures: 
snakes, rodents, insects, owls, and penthouse-dwelling hawks. 

Just after I passed a third Hamerkop stalking a choked water- 
way, I had to pull over and stop on the shoulder while a herd of 
longhorn cattle plodded across, tended by a stick-wielding farmer. 
Straddling the bike, I reached down for my plastic bottle and 
squeezed the warm water into my mouth. The farmer waved and 
smiled as he passed me, but his features were strangely twisted. His 
mouth smiled, but his brows were knit in dubious wonder. 


26 



Neil Peart 


High noon in Africa is an expressive enough description of the 
heat. An hour’s cycling had taken me about twelve miles, an average 
cruising speed, but I felt as if Fd been racing. My whole body 
streamed with sweat, and I was already working on my second wa- 
ter bottle. Spying the burned-out hulk of a car at the roadside, I 
wheeled in beside it and rested one foot on its rust-blotched fender. 
I was surprised to see how much of a car can burn, and how much 
can melt; the rear view mirrors had drooped down the side like a 
Dali painting. 

Leonard pulled up behind me, taking the red bandana from 
around his neck and wiping his face and trim beard, cleaning the 
rimless glasses, then swallowing a draft of water. Another bandana, 
a blue one, covered his head (he was the only one of us who didn’t 
wear a helmet) and he was sweating furiously. I was astonished to 
see him pull off his T-shirt and actually wring it out between his 
hands, a stream of water dripping to the ground. “Elsa’s just a bit 
behind me,” he said. “She’s having a rough time, I’ve had to wait for 
her a lot.” 

I agreed to stay back with her for awhile, and he was gone down 
the road. I noticed for the first time what a relaxed and confident 
riding style he had, strong runner’s legs spinning slowly, and his 
long body centered easily in the saddle. The previous night Leonard 
had told me he did a lot of running, and I’d also learned that he was 
a Vietnam veteran — days he referred to as “when I worked for the 
government.” Now he worked for IBM as an electrical engineer, and 
his favorite thing, he told me, was flying gliders, “when I can afford 
it.” 

I baked by the burned-out car for twenty minutes until Elsa 
coasted to a stop behind me, gasping and slumping over the handle- 
bars. “Doesn’t David ever stop?” she said, with petulance on her 
sharp features and a hint of despair in her voice. “This heat...” 

‘We’re going to stop soon. He knows a place at the crossroads up 
ahead where we can buy some drinks.” 

“How far up ahead? I feel all light-headed.” 

“Not far,” I lied, thinking that if twelve miles of flat road was 
giving her such a rough time, she could be in for worse. At sixty 
years old, it was her first bicycle tour, though the previous night 


27 



The Masked Rider 


she’d made a point of telling us she’d been training for three 
months, swimming every day, and had once done a seventy-five-mile 
bike ride. (Uh ... once?) But she seemed to be fit enough; more worri- 
some was her "externalizing.” Blaming David, the heat, the dis- 
tance. Her face was a mask of bitterness, and I tried to cheer her up. 

“Yeah, the first day, with the jet lag and everything, sometimes 
it hits you that way. It happened to me on the first day of a bike tour 
once, in Spain, when I suddenly conked out in the afternoon. Same 
thing, I went all light-headed. It was a horrible feeling.” 

Finally she pushed off down the road and I fell in behind her, 
pedaling slowly to match her unsteady pace and pulling up at her 
frequent stops. Elsa hadn’t learned how to drink from her water 
bottle while riding, and so had to stop each time she wanted a drink. 
Maybe she just wanted to stop. I could imagine the dark cloud in her 
brain and didn’t say anything more. 

When the crossroads finally came into view, I saw three bicycles 
leaning against the porch of a small brown building, and three rid- 
ers sitting on benches in the shade with bottles of soda. Signs on the 
wall behind them advertised Guinness beer: “It’s Good For You,” 
Canada Dry: “C’est Cool/ 9 and other drinks and cigarettes in a mix- 
ture of French and English. 

Elsa and I leaned our bikes beside the others, and she stumbled 
across the porch and lay back on one of the benches, both arms 
raised over her face. I bought another bottle of spring water for my- 
self, and then brought out a Fanta orange for Elsa. She half-rose 
enough to drink it down, then collapsed back again. But when I 
stepped away to take a photo of her “in repose,” she suddenly leaped 
up, dashed to her bicycle, pulled out her camera and handed it to 
me, then hopped back to the bench and resumed her state of supine 
exhaustion. I took her picture. 

We turned west at the crossroads, onto a quiet road bordered by 
shoulder-high grass and dense rainforest. The roar of passing die- 
sels was replaced by the ceaseless whirr of insects — big-sounding 
insects. David and I rode together at the back of the pack, pedaling 
easily along the paved road. The keychain thermometer on my 
handlebar bag showed ninety degrees. A flattened reptile lay 
pressed into the pavement, a dry and stiff length of skin. 


28 



Neil Peart 


I began to notice brown lumps on the road, scattered like 
crushed seedpods. Looking closer as my wheels passed over one, I 
saw that it resembled a giant worm, with a segmented carapace and 
macerated insides. But, I mean a giant worm, about six inches long 
and two inches thick, and I remarked to David that these were even 
more revolting than the slugs of his native Pacific Northwest. 

“Nah,” he grinned, “just everyday old millipedes.” 

I asked David when he’d started bicycle touring, and he told me 
he’d first crossed the United States nearly twenty years before. I 
was impressed by his story of back-to-back touring days of two hun- 
dred miles, a punishing distance even to do once, on an unladen bi- 
cycle, let alone for days on end with a loaded touring bike. After col- 
lege David had signed up as a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia, and 
had brought his bike with him to that small West African country. 
When his two-year teaching stint was up, he’d set out to explore 
more of the continent, eventually traveling through more than half 
of the countries in Africa. 

From those experiences had come the International Bicycling 
Fund, which he established to lobby for cyclists, and especially to 
promote cycling as transportation for the Third World. Then came 
Bicycle Africa, to introduce westerners to East and West Africa by 
this friendly and efficient mode of transport, and also to introduce 
Africans to the sight of white people in funny hats riding bicycles. 
He was a good guide too, even knew the names of birds. 

A black and white crow flapped across the road ahead of us, and 
David raised a hand from the bars to indicate it. “Pied Crow, prob- 
ably the most common bird in West Africa.” I saw that its name de- 
rived from the white “T-shirt” over its chest and wings. Higher up a 
dark bird of prey circled above the forest, wings held out motionless 
and its wedge-shaped tail acting as rudder, angling sharply to one 
side and the other. 

“Some kind of kite,” offered David, not very scientifically. 

Although most of Cameroon is poor agricultural land, much of it 
dry grasslands, and eighty per cent of the people survive on subsis- 
tence farming, in this coastal area near Mount Cameroon the soil 
was rich, and the rainfall plentiful. Rainforests and plantations of 
rubber trees, banana, and oil palms crowded up to the road, and 


29 



The Masked Rider 


above all rose the silk-cotton trees, towering two hundred feet and 
more. They stood in solitary grandeur, smooth elephant-gray trunks 
rising way up to graceful fans of leaves. 

Elsa had fallen behind again, and David stopped to wait for her 
while I pedaled on ahead to catch Leonard and Annie. Tbgether we 
stopped in the shade of a mango tree. A small house stood nearby, its 
walls of gray planks decorated with a few beer and soft-drink signs. 
A design of bottle caps had been pressed into the clean-swept earth 
in front. There was no sign of anyone. Goats, chickens, and pigs 
wandered freely around the house, scratching and rooting for food 
as we rested in the shade and drank from our water bottles. I 
started a chorus of “Underneath The Mango Tree,” and Leonard 
laughed me into silence just as David and Elsa came riding up. Elsa 
was grateful for another break. 

“I like it here,” I said to no one in particular. 

“Yeah, it’s a nice spot,” said David. “When we get to the north, 
where it’s really hot,” (Elsa’s eyes flashed at this) “it’s nice to find a 
place like this in the late morning, and take a siesta for a couple of 
hours. Otherwise the midday heat just sucks the strength right out 
of you.” 

Another cyclist rolled by, an African man in his forties wearing a 
straw hat and riding a battered old Chinese bike with two large bas- 
kets sagging to either side. I remarked that this was the root of the 
name “panniers” — French for baskets — which we gave to our 
saddlebags, and this cyclist’s true panniers were weighed down with 
a five-gallon plastic container on each side, both of which seemed to 
be full. That would be twice the weight that any of us was carrying, 
with the exception of David, whose mountain bike was loaded with 
panniers over the front and rear wheels, carrying a selection of ar- 
cane tools, bike parts, books, maps, water filter, waterbags, and 
items he had brought as presents, like calendars, T-shirts, and In- 
ternational Bicycle Fund newsletters, in addition to his clothes and 
bedroll. 

When I finally rose from the comfortable mango tree and pushed 
my bike back to the road, I noticed a home-made sign, posted where 
a trail led away between the ragged palms: 


30 



Neil Peart 


DANGER 

KOKE BRIDGE IS VERY-UN SAFE 
YOU ARE CROSSING IT 
AT A VERY BIG RISK 


But we weren’t going that way. 

Another two hours of paved road brought us to the Airport Hotel 
near Tiko. No airport appeared on the map, and none was visible 
from the road, but as we stood before the wrought-iron gates of the 
hotel a sudden roar burst into the air, and a big airplane banked 
steeply just above the trees. Leonard identified it as an American 
C4-B, a four-engine military cargo plane ("working for the govern- 
ment” had educated him well in the machines of war). No one could 
imagine what it might be doing in the tiny village of Tiko, as we 
shaded our eyes and watched it drone into the distance, disappear- 
ing into the clouds toward the long shadow of Mount Cameroon. 

That mountain was a looming presence in our future, as we 
knew that in two days we would be cycling up to the highest town 
on its shoulder. Mount Cameroon is a broad-shouldered old volcano 
0 Theon Ochema , the Chariot Of The Gods) and it is the tallest moun- 
tain in West Africa. Its seaward slopes attract the abundant rain; 
the coastal town of Debundscha is said to be the second-wettest 
place in the world, drenched by over a thousand centimeters of rain 
annually. In contrast, the dry north of Cameroon, where we would 
end our travels, receives only fifty-four centimeters a year. 

The Airport Hotel was surrounded by high walls of concrete and 
spiked wrought-iron, its name printed on a billboard showing 
Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and a large bottle of orange pop, with 
the slogan "My Friend Fanta.” Behind the sliding iron gate was a 
wide terrace roofed in sheets of corrugated metal, and behind it the 
two-storey concrete building. For all its fortifications, the place 
seemed deserted, but David eventually found a sleepy young guy 
who sold us cold drinks from the bar, and told us it would take a 
while for the rooms to be ready. 


31 



The Masked Rider 


David and Elsa took the benches and quickly fell asleep, while I 
sat with Leonard and Annie, talking quietly. A curious poster was 
pasted to the wall, just under a “Guinness Is Good For You” sign: 


DON’T HELP IN THE TRANSMISSION OF AIDS 

with a cartoon of a young couple cuddling on a bench. 
“You and me,” says the boy, in blue trousers and shirt, 
and penny loafers. 

“Until death,” replies the corn-rolled and modestly 
dressed girl. 

STICK TO ONE PARTNER OR SAME 
PARTNERS IN CASE OF POLYGAMY 


It was nearly dark before we finally hauled our bikes up the 
stairs, once again divided by gender into two rooms. Ours was large, 
though furnished with a single small bed, and the plastered walls 
were grubby and scarred by smashed insects and the afterthought of 
electrical wiring. An antiquated air conditioner chugged ineffectu- 
ally beneath the glass-louvered window, and the linoleum was 
crusted with grime like the floor of a gas station. 

We did have the unexpected luxury of an “en suite” bathroom, a 
cube of raw concrete with stained fixtures and a shower-head which 
spilled unheated water onto the floor. But even a cold shower was 
welcome, and with clean clothes on I felt revived and ready for the 
walk into Tiko in search of food. 

I had noticed all day that no one wore shorts, except very small 
children, no matter how warm it was. David told us it was a matter 
of modesty, but it was acceptable for us to wear shorts while on the 
bikes, being “sportifs.” He had already advised the women to wear 
long pants or a skirt whenever they were off their bikes, and sug- 
gested that Leonard and I would feel more comfortable if we dressed 
according to local customs. I don’t know if “comfortable” is the word, 
as it was often damned unpleasant pulling on long trousers in 
ninety degree heat, but we agreed that we didn’t want to offend any- 
one. 

You had to blame the missionaries. The West Africans had once 
gone about comfortably and suitably naked, or nearly so, and it had 


32 



Neil Peart 


been the prudish missionaries, so often the emissaries of western 
civilization, who had convinced the Africans that God wanted them 
to wear trousers, shirts, and dresses. Though Africa has finally 
thrown off the white man’s rule, some things, though alien to the Af- 
rican world-view, had been planted too deep — commerce, politics, 
real estate, colonial borders, and prudery. When Cameroon gained 
its independence in 1961, the new government even issued a direc- 
tive that women were to dress “decently and modestly,” meaning no 
more naked breasts. 

The road into town was unlighted, and Leonard and I tried to 
pick out a path with our flashlights. An occasional passing car 
blinded us, and with the night sky shrouded in black clouds it was 
as if we moved through a tunnel. Small groups of people, all but in- 
visible, appeared suddenly before us, then passed on, talk and 
laughter carrying on the air. 

The road ended suddenly, and we stumbled through the ruts of 
the village streets. David led us to the market, where a few oil-drum 
fires flickered on people carrying boxes and baskets from the kiosks 
to a cluster of cars, gleams of glass and metal in the darkness. The 
market appeared to be closing, though music still blared from every 
direction, each speaker trying to outdo the other in volume, if not in 
fidelity. Again the Inferno image came to mind as I walked appre- 
hensively through this purgatory of people, fires, mysterious dark- 
ness, and loud, sensual music. Just like Hanno, scared by “fires and 
strange music.” 

David asked a passing man where we might find some food. He 
stared at us for a moment, then waved toward a passageway which 
led inside the market. The four of us followed David in dumb proces- 
sion. I kept a hand on my beltpack. We stopped at a few kiosks while 
David asked if there was any food available. They all shook their 
heads, so we turned back and wandered down a narrow rutted 
street, a single weak streetlamp making it seem all the darker. 

At the Park Hotel, another seedy-looking building of cinder- 
block and wrought-iron, we were sent up an outside stairway to a 
small empty dining room. We sat around an oilcloth-covered table 
and admired the peacock-blue walls decorated with posters of body- 
builders, “WORLD SUPERSTARS ’89.” (In 1988!) Naturally, banal 
comments were made about grotesquely overdeveloped bodies. 


33 



The Masked Rider 


Another poster drew my attention: a cartoon figure of a woman 
in profile, with her lips padlocked shut. But it wasn't a joke! 


Keep Our Secrets Tight 

There would be the greatest peace on earth 
When on every bad mouth a padlock is hung 
Do you want a long, good life, then watch 
your tongue and keep your lips from gossips 
and lies. 


On another wall, a chalkboard listed the menu, but chicken and 
rice were the only recognizable offerings among the unknown 
names. I wondered about fufu , ugali, and ndole, and Leonard won- 
dered about a beer. Elsa brought out some photographs of her 
grandchildren and passed them around, while Annie made a sketch 
of the girl with the padlocked lips. Our voices reverberated in the 
bright room. No one appeared to take our order. 

Finally a round-faced young fellow in a white shirt pushed 
through the beaded curtain and came up to the table, and David 
asked him in French if there was any food. 

Non. 

David nodded, unsurprised, and asked if we might get some om- 
elettes. The sober-faced young man turned and left. 

"Are we going to get fed?” asked Elsa. 

"I think so,” David said, "maybe he’s gone to buy some eggs.” 

The adjacent kitchen suddenly came alive, and in a few minutes 
the round-faced waiter brought us spicy omelettes, bread, and hot 
water for tea, chocolate, or Nescafe. A plain but satisfying meal, and 
now it was tme to head back to the Airport Hotel for the next big 
event: sleep. 

Our "air conditioner” chugged all night like a diesel, but had no 
effect on the temperature, though it almost overwhelmed the bass 
drum throbbing through the walls from the bar downstairs. The 
room contained only one droopy little bed, and David and I ceded it 
to Leonard, spreading our sleeping bags on the grimy floor. David 
said "I often find the floors in Africa are more comfortable than the 
beds anyway.” 


34 



Neil Peart 


I lay in the humid dark holding that thought, a symbol for the 
conflicting responses I had felt that day. On one level I was painfully 
aware of lying on a dirty floor; but on another level I realized that I 
was lying on a dirty floor in Africa. On that level I was excited, look- 
ing forward to a whole month of adventures to come. 

But deep down I realized that a month can be a long time. 


35 




A loyal supporter of President Biya. 


36 




By 6:30 a.m. we were back on the bicycles, climbing with the sun 
up a long hill. Sometimes it is just as well to go directly from sleep 
to a struggle like that, as a sleep-dulled brain seems less impressed 
by effort. The world was green and the sky translucent in the haze. 
Moon-faced people turned to stare as I pedaled by them; children 
walked in groups on their way to school, carrying satchels and 
books, and serious-faced women walked with erect carriage and easy 
grace, a posture endowed by the large baskets and bundles many of 
them bore on their heads. Men sauntered along the roadside, 
strolled across between the speeding minibuses and taxis to greet 
each other, or simply stood around, proving what is said about 
women doing eighty per cent of the work in Africa. 

The minibuses and taxis were crammed so full that the passen- 
gers’ shoulders flattened against the windows as they sped by, and 
all the buses carried signboards on their roofs, slogans painted in 
circus red and yellow: “Take Care Men,” “Say What You Like, God 
Loves Me,” “James Bond 007,” “A Disappointment Is A Blessing.” 

After two steep miles the village of Mutengene sprawled over 
the crown of the hill in rows of wood and corrugated-metal houses. 
Leaning our bikes against a yellow building decorated with signs ad- 
vertising Delta cigarettes, we took stools at the lunch counter out- 
side. In the swept yard beside us a woman sat on a stool by a fire, 
dropping balls of dough into hot oil to make beignets, dumplings of 
deep-fried bread. Two small children played in the dirt beside her, 
the older girl sometimes glancing over at us, then turning away. 
Once I caught her eye and smiled, and she laughed and hid her face. 

“I was arrested here once,” David said. “You remember back 
there we saw a building called the 'ETS MEN’S WORK?’ Then just 
after it the 'WOMEN’S OWN CLUB?’ Well, I stopped to take a pho- 
tograph of that, and a policeman came and arrested me and took me 
to the station. He said there was a bare-breasted woman in the 
background of the picture, but I sure never saw her!” 


37 



The Masked Rider 


Leonard laughed: “Not likely to miss a thing like that, hmm?” 
Elsa and Annie gave him an eloquent look, while I turned to David: 
“Tbuchy about that sort of thing, are they?” 

“I guess. They kept me there for about two hours, and finally 
took the film out before I got my camera back.” 

Leonard’s eyes crinkled behind his glasses as he turned to 
David. “Yeah, remember last year in Kenya when that girl Denise 
took a photo of the Kenyan flag and got arrested.” He turned to the 
rest of us. “They kept her for hours too, and took the film away. She 
tried to tell them she would get it developed and send them the 
negative, but they kept saying 'No, no, we will develop/ and then 
they phoned Nairobi to find out what 'develop’ was.” Leonard shook 
his head slowly and laughed. 

“You’ve got to be really careful with your camera,” David went 
on, “Many people here don’t like to have their pictures taken by for- 
eigners, and they often think you only take pictures that will embar- 
rass them, show them at their worst and sensationalize their pov- 
erty. I remember in Liberia once, I wanted to take a photo of a fam- 
ily, but they waved me to 'wait, wait,’ then ran off and dressed up 
the children, and returned to pose for me, each of them with a hand 
on their radioF 

“So it’s not so much a religious thing here,” I said, “not like those 
people who think you’re stealing their souls?” 

“No, more of a cultural thing. They just don’t trust cameras.” 
“Hear hear,” I agreed. 

After omelettes and Nescafe we moved down to the bikes, which 
were stacked against each other so that none could be reached until 
Annie’s was out of the way. Yet she stood to the side, pushing her 
thick hair under her helmet and looking expectant, then moving her 
hands as if she wanted to help but didn’t know what to do: “So ... um 
... should we get going?” 

David spoke up: “Well, no one’s going anywhere until you move 
your bike!” 

“Oh yeah ... um ... right ... heh-heh,” and she took hold of the 
handlebars and pushed it away. David turned to me, smiling and 
shaking his head. “It amazes me how many times I go through this 
on tours. Sometimes it takes people weeks to figure that out.” 

It was to be our shortest day of cycling for a month, a mere 
twelve miles to the coastal town of Limbe, so we set a relaxed pace 


38 



Neil Peart 


through the lush plantations and Hawaiian-postcard hills. Pied 
crows flapped lazily over the road, while the kites soared in high 
circles. Mount Cameroon was a constant shadow on the right, its 
great bulk veiled by haze and clouds. A few villages sprouted among 
the trees, but they seemed to grow into the forest rather than out of 
it. Wooden structures were under constant attrition from dampness, 
insects, and mossy growths; the planked walls were weathered gray, 
the corners disintegrating, and even the metal roofs were dull 
brown under a patina of lichen and rust. 

We continued along the coastal plateau, Annie out front and one 
of us always staying back to ride “sweep” with Elsa. We had such a 
short distance to travel that I felt no pressure to arrive, which on 
longer journeys always weighs heavily on me, and I pedaled along 
with a light heart. Sometimes I even sang a little, when no one was 
close enough to hear. My singing is best kept to myself. 

We coasted in a line down a two-mile hill, feet motionless on the 
pedals and bodies bent into the wind, drifting around sweeping 
bends between the trees and unable now to wave at the faces calling 
out from the roadside. Snatches of distorted music from radios and 
tape players blared suddenly, then fell behind. We passed under a 
yellow railway bridge with “WELCOME TO LIMBE” painted across 
it, as the road leveled out and we began pedaling again, past rows of 
houses. Straight ahead was the Atlantic Ocean, a swath of ultrama- 
rine glittering in the morning sun. Though it was still only 9:00, the 
heat was already a dense curtain; no fresh breeze blew from the sea. 

We circled a roundabout and turned into a side street, then wove 
through the narrow, neat streets of Limbe. David stopped in front of 
an official-looking two-storey white building, and we parked our 
bikes against the wall. A sign read: “Mairie” — town hall. 

“Just wait here a minute,” David said, “I’m going to see if we can 
meet the mayor.” 

He pulled a pair of plastic warm-up pants over his shorts, then 
spoke to one of the policemen standing by the doorway, asking for 
the mayor’s office. One of them pointed inside. 

I noticed that the policemen spoke English, and realized that we 
were now in the English-speaking part of the country. At indepen- 
dence some of Britain’s slice of Cameroon went to Nigeria, but a nar- 
row corridor remained, a remnant of British colonial rule with a few 
token Briticisms like language, school system, and sliced white 


39 



The Masked Rider 


bread. True, no baguettes here, and as we traveled around 
Cameroon the bread would always be the clearest sign of what lan- 
guage the local people might speak. 

The mayor agreed to see us, so the girls wrapped their skirts 
over their shorts, while Leonard and I dug out our long pants. We 
mounted the stairs to a small meeting room, chairs placed in rows 
around the walls. 

The mayor emerged from another door, a short, round man 
dressed in a close-fitting outfit of shirt-jacket and pants in a match- 
ing light brown polyester, the classic leisure-suit uniform of the 
West African functionary. He stepped forward to greet us with a 
friendly smile and a firm handshake, then motioned us to take a 
chair. He remained standing, his bulk rocking a little from side to 
side as David described where we’d been and where we were going, 
and he nodded and smiled with interest. When he learned that most 
of the group was American, the mayor mentioned that he had gone 
to school in the U.S. at, of all places, the University of Wisconsin. 
David asked about an ambulance which was being presented to 
Limbe by its sister city, David’s home town of Seattle. The mayor 
told him that he expected it to arrive in a month or so, and that he 
would be meeting the American delegation at that time. David 
wanted to know where he would have them stay. 

“At the Atlantic Beach Hotel I think. It is the best in Limbe. You 
will stay there?” 

David looked uneasy: “Well, maybe.” 

And there the conversation faltered, as everyone nodded and 
smiled in the sudden silence, the mayor still swaying from side to 
side uncomfortably. “I am just taken aback at your visit. I am taken 
aback.” 

The four of us smiled and nodded some more, the smiles becom- 
ing frozen and the nods becoming vacuous, then David finally rose 
to say goodbye. The rest of us were on our feet in a second, as the 
mayor smiled with renewed vigor and shook our hands again. “Per- 
haps I may see you at the Atlantic Beach Hotel later for a drink?” 

'Yes, certainly,” said David, “that would be nice,” and we smiled 
some more and thanked the mayor for his time as we headed down 
the stairs. As we put away long pants and skirts and remounted the 
bikes, David gave a short laugh, “Well, I guess I’m trapped into the 
Atlantic Beach Hotel now. I wish he hadn’t said that.” 


40 



Neil Peart 


“Why, what’s the problem?” I asked, “Isn’t it any good?” 

“Oh no, it’s a nice hotel all right,” he trailed off, and I under- 
stood. It might be a bit rich for our budget. The Bicycle Africa tours 
were designed to operate with a minimum of about eight people, so 
our little group was a strain on David’s finances — as he put it, “not 
to lose too much.” 

We pedaled slowly along the sun-baked streets toward the water, 
then turned along the seawall and stopped at a life-size statue of a 
man. ALFRED SAKER, said the inscription, and I had read that he 
was the English missionary who founded Limbe. In the 1850s he ar- 
rived on the island of Fernando Po, a Spanish territory just off 
Cameroon’s coast, where he worked with a group of Jamaican 
priests among freed slaves who had taken refuge there. The local Je- 
suits, appalled at the presence of Protestants on “their” island, 
forced the governor to expel these hard-working heretics, and Saker 
moved his people to the mainland. There he proved himself to be one 
good missionary. He bought a stretch of waterfront property from 
the chief of the local Douala tribe — didn’t take it, bought it — 
cleared the land, built a school, and taught the local boys carpentry, 
printing, brick-making, and medicine. He learned the Douala lan- 
guage and translated grammar books and the Bible, built a sugar 
mill, and introduced breadfruit, pomegranates, avocados, and man- 
gos. The next day, one presumes, he rested. Saker’s mission grew 
into the town of Victoria, named by this loyal Brit for his sovereign, 
but was renamed Limbe in the 1970s under the continent- wide 
movement for Africanization. Limbe has become a busy seaside mar- 
ket town and a popular weekend escape from Douala, but unfortu- 
nately its future as a resort is threatened by the presence of one of 
the largest oil refineries in West Africa, which pours its waste di- 
rectly into the sea to come washing up on the beaches. 

At the edge of town we crossed a bridge over a small river, just 
where it emptied into the ocean, and I smiled at the shouts and 
laughter of a crowd of children playing in the water, escaping the 
heat in time-honored, international style. On the other side of the 
bridge, upriver, a herd of long-horned cattle browsed on the tender 
grasses in the shallows. We parked our bikes at the Atlantic Beach 
Hotel, a low white building with blue-trimmed windows and ter- 
races amid coconut palms and bushes of frangipani and hibiscus. A 
swimming pool and a pair of blue gazebos faced the sea, where a row 
of tiny islands poked up from the blue Atlantic like rocky fingertips. 


41 



The Masked Rider 


Everyone was soon occupied with washing, resting, or doing 
laundry, so I cycled alone back along the shore, where a beach 
curved around the wide bay, and stopped to admire the view. A few 
tall wooden fishing boats, with outboard motors set into square 
holes in the stern, nodded lazily on the waves. A man worked on his 
motor, bent over it above the water, his dark sinewy arms shining in 
the sun. A long skeleton of twisted iron gridwork ran out from 
shore, the remnants of a pier from colonial days now useless and 
rusting. Dugout rowboats were pulled high on the beach, up to the 
pavement where I had stopped, and men carried baskets of fish from 
the boats to a line of brightly-clothed women who sat along the curb, 
bending forward as their hands stirred through the baskets, sorting 
brown crabs and trout-sized silver fish. Sharks and barracudas were 
carried one at a time over to a small white ice-house. 

I was determined to take a photograph of this colorful scene, but 
I knew I had to be careful. I didn’t want to cause a colorful scene. I 
stood casually by the ruins of the pier, looking everywhere but at the 
“fishwives.” My camera dangled carelessly at my side as I pretended 
to watch children playing in a schoolyard across the road. I whistled 
a tuneless tune. When the moment came, and the women all seemed 
to be looking the other way, I brought the camera up, quickly 
pushed the shutter, then turned away to my bike. 

But I was caught. An irate voice called out: “Why you snap 
people dem?” 

And I looked back to see an angry woman facing me, and a mur- 
mur of unrest sweeping through the others. Then again, “Why you 
snap people dem?” 

Like Hanno, I ran away, climbed on my bike and pedaled swiftly 
down the road, feeling embarrassed and ashamed. The picture didn’t 
come out either. I’d brought the camera up so quickly that the wrist- 
strap flew in front of the lens. Justice was served. 

I took shelter in the crowds at the open-air market, pushing my 
bike along the rows of metal-roofed tables and kiosks selling fruits, 
vegetables, meats, rice, and fish, and then an outside perimeter of 
stalls which sold tools, dishes, buckets, and shoes. Hundreds of rolls 
of cloth stood on end, the bright-colored prints which were the raw 
material for the long skirts, pagnes, and headscarves which the 
women wore. I stood by and watched the bargaining, counting the 
money changing hands to see how much the locals were paying, 


42 



Neil Peart 


then stepped in and made a deal for a nice crimson and dark green 
pattern. It would serve me well as a bedsheet, dressing gown, a mat 
for siestas, and a useful souvenir. 

Two conspicuously pale figures appeared in the crowd, Annie 
and Elsa, who were also shopping for pagnes, as a solution for the 
modesty problem. Since they were expected to cover their legs 
whenever they were off the bikes, a pagne could simply be wrapped 
around their shamefully exposed nether limbs, rather than pulling 
on skirts or long pants. 

We regrouped for lunch on the hotel terrace, overlooking the 
palms and rocky shoreline. Crab claws, an excellent salad, fresh 
fish, pineapple, good strong coffee. We couldn’t know that it was the 
last taste of luxury and ease we would enjoy for many days, but I 
had experienced enough cycle touring to know that when you’re fin- 
ished pedaling by 9:30 in the morning, with the rest of the day free 
and a nice hotel by the ocean, you should enjoy it. We brought our 
books to the row of chairs by the water, where low tide exposed the 
sharp volcanic rocks. A paved walkway led into the warmest sea I’ve 
ever felt, protected from waves and currents by a low seawall. 
Didn’t know then about the oil refinery. 

David had admired my close-shaven haircut, and asked if I’d cut 
my hair off for this trip, or "Is it just a crazy rock n’ roll hairstyle?” 
I laughed and told him I always cut my hair short before a bike tour 
— one less thing to worry about. He decided that was a good idea, 
and convinced Leonard to give him a trim. While Leonard stood be- 
hind David’s chair, clipping away at his curly mass of hair, Annie, 
Elsa, and I sat beneath a blue gazebo, our faces buried in our books. 
I had packed only two books for this trip, as I seldom do much read- 
ing on a cycling tour, but they proved to be good choices. One was 
Aristotle’s Ethics , and the other Dear Theo , the letters of Vincent 
van Gogh to his brother. 

Aristotle was perfect in the daytime, his clear and rational dis- 
cussions of virtuous behavior and the "golden mean” a welcome di- 
version while I lay in the shade of a tree during a midday siesta. 
Vincent’s more romantic flights of artistic struggle suited the warm 
nights, as I lay back in my sleeping bag with a flashlight on my 
shoulder. That afternoon by the sea, while Annie began a sketch of 
Mister Leonard’s waterfront beauty salon, I decided I wasn’t ready 
for Aristotle yet, and between dips in the water I waded into the 
unpromising first chapters of Dear Theo. 


43 



The Masked Rider 


Poor Vincent. An impoverished and confused young man, he 
gives up a position with his uncle the art dealer, with no regrets on 
either side, and then wanders destitute around London for a time. I 
happen to know, autobiographically, that if there is a good place to 
be destitute, it is not London. 

Then Vincent tumbles into a morass of religion, and his letters 
begin to peal with the tiresome piety of a new believer. Deciding 
that evangelism is his true calling, but unable to get himself or- 
dained, he retreats to a sad little mining town in Belgium and stews 
there for a while, dejected, rejected, and supremely miserable. 

I, on the other hand, was supremely happy. I put down the book 
and lay back on a chaise longue, looking up at the sky. So many lev- 
els of movement: swallows and crows arrowing over the water, low 
clouds bulging swiftly across the sky, and above them the high, thin 
clouds riding a slow jetstream. In between, the frigate birds 
stretched their boomerang-shaped wings and soared on the thermal 
updrafts; the gentle wind blended flowers and salt water. A freighter 
moved slowly across the horizon, out beyond the chain of tiny is- 
lands, the rocky fingertips. Fishing boats bobbed on the waves closer 
in, or motored across the bay in distant silence. I lay back in the late 
afternoon sun, its healing warmth on my face. 

After the swift performance of sunset over the Atlantic, which I 
appreciated in the proper fashion, from the bar’s terrace, with a 
Scotch on the rocks, and the lazy rhythm of the surf, we went in 
search of a dinner that would be a little less expensive, and a little 
more “cultural,” than the Atlantic Beach Hotel. We walked tenta- 
tively down unlighted streets, Leonard and I trying to cover 
everyone’s path with our flashlights. Fugitive washes of light from 
the low buildings caught moving silhouettes, or played on faces and 
ghostly clothes. The five of us were equally masked in darkness, and 
for once attracted little attention. 

David led us to a “chophouse,” as he called it, and we passed 
through a lacy curtain into a low, dimly-lighted room and seated 
ourselves around a plank table. A massive woman emerged from a 
back room to ask us what we wanted. David asked her what she 
had, but the answer made no sense to the rest of us, so we agreed to 
let him order a “special meal” for us. 

I had read about a West African dish called fufu and was eager 
to try it. I didn’t know what it was , but I liked the name. It turned 


44 



Neil Peart 


out to be lumps of pounded maize, a cold, doughy mass reminiscent 
of Play-doh. We broke off pieces with our fingers and dipped them 
into a spicy meat broth with chunks of beef (I think). This sauce 
could also be ladled over the bowls of white rice, a combination we 
would encounter many times, and which I christened “rice with junk 
on it.” In Third World countries, poverty is the mother of invention. 


The next day’s ride took us up to Buea, a small town perched 
high on the shoulder of Mount Cameroon. Because of its pleasant 
highland climate, Buea had been the capital of the German colony, 
and it remained a favored spot for missionaries to ply their trade. 
David told us there were more churches around Buea than he’d seen 
in any other place in West Africa. I wouldn’t have thought mission- 
aries chose their missions according to climatic comfort, but I did no- 
tice that low-lying swampy villages had been deemed less in need of 
“saving” than were the pleasant highland locations. Tb be fair, 
though, the early missionaries had often perished from yellow fever 
and malaria, diseases of the tropical lowlands. 

Our route from Limbe and the sea took us back up the long hill 
and through the Hawaiian-postcard landscape. Children waved and 
smiled at us on their way to school, and three young girls shyly al- 
lowed me to take their picture. All of them had their hair trimmed 
very short, and wore cotton dresses and rubber flip-flops. One girl’s 
dress was printed with an almost life-size black-and-white portrait 
of President Paul Biya. I was to see quite a few of these patriotic 
dresses, and even some that portrayed Pope John Paul. I tried with- 
out success to visualize a Canadian woman wearing Brian Mulroney. 

A sloppy-looking youth leaned out into the road and shouted at 
David, “Hey, give me something from your pack!” 

David replied, reasonably enough, “Well, what do you need?” 
“Whatever you have!” We laughed and rode away. 

As we pedaled by five little boys, one of them held up a big craw- 
fish, greenish-brown, shiny, and very alive. The boys all started yell- 
ing at us in a confusion of shouts, each one of them now waving a 
slowly gyrating crustacean. 'Voodoo,’ I thought to myself. 

Another group of children stood at the side of the road clapping 
their hands in rhythm and chanting, “Bicycle rider try your best! Bi- 


45 



The Masked Rider 


cycle rider try your best!” and jumping up and down in excitement 
as we wheeled by. David explained this as another legacy left by the 
French, the popularity of bicycle racing. The children were used to 
cheering for the racers. 

As if in proof of this, a pair of local racers came charging up to 
Mutengene, where we sat resting at the side of the road. In answer 
to our wave of greeting, the two cyclists pulled up beside us, and 
David and I spoke with them as well as our limited French allowed. 
One of them was unmistakably the leader, not only because he did 
all the talking, but because he rode a sophisticated racing machine 
with all the latest gear: aerodynamic brake levers, cables routed 
through the frame, clip-in pedals, and he wore colorful lycra cycling 
clothes. His partner's bike was less state-of-the art, and his clothes 
were plain old cotton. He would be what is called a domestique , one 
of the members of a racing team who is responsible for helping the 
team’s strongest rider to win by engaging in tactical duels with 
other racers, or letting the number one rider take it easy in his 
draft, to conserve his strength for a sprint at the finish. These two 
were training for a stage race up in Algeria, and their morning’s 
training ride had taken them over the same route we had followed, 
though they covered in a few hours what had taken us three days. 

We turned straight up the side of the mountain; it would be a 
ten-mile climb to Buea. I was grateful for the overcast, but the heat 
was rising in my muscles and my face. I blew out hard to spray the 
tickles of sweat off my nose. Just behind me Elsa groaned out loud, 
muttering, “Doesn’t he know anything but hills ?” 

Guessing she meant David and not God, I laughed over my 
shoulder, “Well, I don’t think he made it this way!” but she was si- 
lent. On a climb like that there was no question of riding at “anyone 
Elsa's ” pace. It’s just as difficult to ride slower than your own 
rhythm as it is to ride faster , so everyone spread out. I was out of 
the saddle with my hands over the brake hoods, rocking the bike 
from side to side and using my weight on the pedal strokes. I noticed 
that David up ahead was more of a “spinner,” sitting down and ped- 
aling at a higher cadence in a lower gear. Better for him, I knew, 
and more aerobic, but I’d become comfortable doing it the “wrong” 
way. 

A few buses sped by, with names like “Air Chariot” and “Justice,” 
and as usual on a long climb, there was time to look around. Every- 
thing was greener and more lush in the shadow of the mountain. 


46 



Neil Peart 


Royal palms speared up to the sky amid cedar-like evergreens with 
the pretty name of casuarina. Even the power lines were hung with 
garlands of mauve and white flowers. Framed among the leaves at 
the roadside, a man hacked at a tree with his machete. In another 
yard a man worked under the hood of an ancient Peugeot, which 
looked as if it had been parked in front of his house for a long time. 
As I slowly climbed past him, he sang out: “I want to be a white 
man!” then chuckled without malice. What could I do but laugh? 

A little higher up the mountain, I noticed a sign in front of a 
tumble-down house: 


PROFESSOR JEROME NGWA 
SPIRITUAL HEALING HOME 
Specialist in — 

MADNESS, GASTRIC PAIN, HEART PAIN, STOMACH ACHE, 
PILE, STERILITY, WITCHCRAFT, POISON, 

YELLOW FEVER, EPILEPSY, RHEUMATISM, ETC. 


And these claims of Professor Ngwa’s were modest. Some of the 
other “herbalists” promised to cure more than madness and witch- 
craft — even cancer and AIDS. On a later trip to Ghana, I saw this 
sign at the roadside: 


VENEREAL DISEASES 

If you feel WAIST PAINS and there is LIQUID 
Coming from your PENIS or VAGINA 
If you feel PAINS and there is BLOOD 
Coming from your PENIS or VAGINA 

INFERTILITY 

WAIST PAINS LUMBAGO BLINDNESS 
ASTHMA NERVOURSNESS PILES 
HYPERTENSION STROKE FITS 
RHEUMATIC PAINS GOUT 
SICKLE CELLS ABDOMINAL PAINS 
DIABETES MADNESS 
CANCER SKIN DISEASES 
URINALTROUBLES 

GOOD TREATMENT ASSURED — > AIDS DISEASES 
And lots and lots of SICKNESS You can consult me for HELP 


OHEAKOH HERBAL TREATMENT 
CLINIC AT NUNGUA 
IMPOTENCE 

Are you 
IMPOTENT? 

You will recover from 

IMPOTENCE 

Within 5 to 10 minutes 

a) IF your PENIS is lacking sufficient 
STRENGTH in SEXUAL 

b) IF your PENIS is WHOLLY 
lacking in SEXUAL POWER 


47 



The Masked Rider 


Though it is hard not to smile at these claims, some of the tradi- 
tional African cures, like those in China, have proved effective, 
though perhaps not against cancer or AIDS. The power of faith in 
healing is undeniable as well, and it is partly for this reason that 
the missionary doctors dislike these “fetish doctors.” The conflict of 
faiths. Science and superstition alike are aided by the patient’s faith 
in them, and the opposing practitioners are jealous of that faith. 

In Tbgo I once visited an American doctor, a Baptist missionary, 
who had constructed a remarkable hospital in the West African 
bush. With good old missionary zeal and hard work, backed by 
churches in Michigan and Indiana, he had assembled two operating 
rooms, twenty-five beds, an air-conditioned dispensary, and even an 
old M*A*S*H* X-ray machine, all powered by generator. The doctor 
told us that when the local people thought their relatives were about 
to die in the hospital, they hurried to get the patient home because 
the taxi fare for a corpse was ten times that for a live person, but 
when we discussed the fetish doctors, his face hardened. He told us 
he had just witnessed the funeral of an evil fetish priest, and the vil- 
lagers had carried the body along in a stretcher, beating it with 
sticks, then dumped it into a grave of thorns, so the priest would 
have to sleep in pain forever. When asked if he allowed the village 
doctors to visit his patients in the hospital, the doctor’s response was 
surprisingly vehement, “No, we don’t. They do the work of Satan, 
and we’re trying to do the work of God.” 

Africans tend to be pragmatic, and are still likely to consult both 
kinds of doctor, and magician, like a businessman I know who re- 
mains open to all religions, “just in case they’re right.” And, like 
elsewhere in the world, there seems to be a relationship between 
faith and the difficulty of life. For example, independence has been 
tougher on Ghana than Cameroon. The Ghanaian people have suf- 
fered radical governments, regular coups, and the corresponding 
economic chaos, while faith seems stronger and more serious there. 
Judging by the roadside signs, many more traditional doctors prac- 
tise in Ghana; there are definitely more churches, and even the 
minibus signs reflect the harsher life. You see no frivolous ones in 
Ghana, no “Air Chariot” or “James Bond 007.” All the Ghanaian 
buses have devotional names like “Blessed Assurance” or “Good Fa- 
ther.” No sense of humor — just like faith. You could sometimes say 
reason is a luxury everywhere in the world. It works fine as long as 


48 



Neil Peart 


life is reasonable, but when guns, poverty, and drought start push- 
ing people around, they often retire into faith. 

And if you’re going to retire into faith, go to Buea. Missionaries 
may be crazy but they’re not stupid. When David and I panted up 
the mountainside to the cool and healthful air of Buea, the road was 
lined with one church after another: Baptist, Catholic, Lutheran, 
Methodist, I don’t know what all. Sweating and breathless, we fi- 
nally stopped at a crossroads, and I sat on a bench to wait for the 
others while David went off in search of a hotel. 

Leonard and Annie hauled themselves slowly up to me, and 
wilted into the shade. Then came a vision: Elsa being pushed up the 
hill by a young guy who trotted behind her. We laughed and ran for 
our cameras as Elsa coasted up saying, “I didn’t mind that a bit!” 

Her “pusher” stopped to talk with us, and we soon discovered 
that he could be pushy in more ways than one. Chifor Ignatius was 
his name, a skinny young man in baggy white shirt and dark trou- 
sers. His eyes were sharp and guarded, and did not inspire trust in 
me. 

He started right in on Elsa. 4< Will you give me your address so I 
may write to you? I meet many people who say they will write, but 
nobody is ever writing back to me.” 

A common syndrome in Africa, especially in countries like 
Ghana where every second person wants your address. Bad feelings 
are often caused by foreigners who promise to send photographs and 
letters to friends made in the glory days of a vacation, but then re- 
turn home to the work-a-day world and forget all about it. I’m sure 
many would rationalize it, “Well I just wanted to be friendly. Maybe 
I’ll get to it sometime.” But of course to the people they disappoint, 
it’s just another broken promise. Then again, offering your address 
can be an invitation to requests for money, a television set, an air- 
line ticket, or one day you may find your forgotten African friend at 
your door. 

Once in Ghana I had stopped at a roadside bar for a Coke, and a 
young man came up to me, pushing through the children who had 
gathered around to stare. He sat down in front of me and immedi- 
ately demanded my address and wanted me to write to him. He ex- 
plained that he was ambitious, and as proof he pointed around at 
my bicycle and my camera. “Someday I will have one of those. And 
one of those.” He was very plain about what he wanted with me; he 


49 



The Masked Rider 


pushed his baseball cap back on his head and leaned forward to say, 
"All I need is a white man to help me.” 

I could only laugh, but I have found this approach and this atti- 
tude to be all too common among Africans, especially the youth. 
They see a white man as a ticket to something; they think every 
white man holds the power to make things happen. Sometimes you 
tell an African that you're bicycling around his country, and at first 
he's amazed; but then he thinks again, waves his hand and says, 
'Well, it’s easy for a white man.” 

Many young Africans have discussed their ambitions with me, 
and not one of them has ever talked about doing things, but only 
having things. They never spoke of wanting to be a doctor or an ar- 
chitect, they just wanted to go to America and get rich. The limited 
view, unfortunately, of too many westerners as well — the idea that 
the goal of life is to get things, like on a game show. When life-sup- 
port is on the line, money is everything, but beyond that threshold 
of survival life ought to get bigger. Or am I too idealistic? Perhaps. 
But thus have many young Africans inherited the western curse of 
acquisitiveness, without the accompanying drive for accomplish- 
ment. They dream of having, not doing. And a white man can help 
them. 

Elsa moved away from Chifor Ignatius, and the four of us had a 
quick, whispered huddle. We agreed that we didn't really want to 
take the responsibility of saying we would write to people like Chifor 
Ignatius who barely crossed our path, but we wanted to be diplo- 
matic as well. Elsa finally gave him a few coins for pushing her, took 
down his address, and promised to send him a postcard. 

Then he approached me. "You were snapping a photograph of me 
pushing the lady.” 

I knew he wanted either a copy of the picture, or to be paid for 
being in it, so I put him off firmly. "It wasn't a picture of you, it was 
a picture of her. You were behind her.” 

He looked doubtful. "I am not in the photograph?” 

"It was of her.” This careful response was true, if equivocal, and 
ended the discussion. When the photograph was developed, he did 
appear, sort of, as a white-shirted shadow in the background. 

David returned and led us to a three-storey tenement of white- 
washed concrete, the Parliamentarian Flats Hotel. I had to learn the 
impressive name from a giant fob on the room key, as there was no 


50 



Neil Peart 


sign at all in front of the building. The man at the desk told us he 
was waiting for a new sign, which had been promised to him by a 
brasserie — brewery. 

Africa On A Shoestring says the Parliamentarian Flats Hotel 
“looks as pretentious as it sounds,” which I can only attribute to its 
being three storeys tall. The Lonely Planet researchers also describe 
it as “clean, quiet and comfortable,” which I can only attribute to 
guesswork. Our room was a grubby pink plaster cell with filthy 
white doors and trim, a linoleum floor encrusted with dirt, and a 
single light fixture full of dead bugs. The toilet had no seat, the tub 
had no shower, and the sink drained straight onto the floor. 

We went for a walk. Outside the perfume of montane forests car- 
ried on the air, and Mount Cameroon loomed high behind the hotel, 
an enormous darkness wrapped in clouds. 

Buea’s small market was still open, a square of beaten earth, a 
network of mismatched stalls of wood and corrugated metal. Women 
chatted and laughed, sometimes selling a handful of rice, yams, 
plantains, palm nuts, or dried fish. The traditional West African ap- 
proach to free enterprise is well represented by the market women. 
There may be five or six of them in a row behind their tables, and 
each of them will be selling the same thing, say oranges, for the 
same price. No price-cutting, no real competition; they sit together 
all day talking and waiting, trusting that they will all sell their or- 
anges, eventually. 

Leonard was delighted with a common West African snack. A 
woman sat paring oranges until the skins were thin and white, then 
stacking them in little pyramids. When Leonard handed over a few 
francs to buy one, she sliced the top off the orange, like a little lid, to 
make a convenient serving of fresh orange juice. Easy to squeeze, 
and no sticky fingers. “Gotta get the franchise for this idea,” he said. 
“Make a fortune in California!” 

Following David, we ducked through a curtain into a stall of 
wood and corrugated metal, where a single table sat on a floor of 
swept dirt. In the itinerary, Buea’s dinner was listed as “cafe.” I 
guess David felt “chophouse” didn’t have the same ring. He asked 
what we wanted, and I suggested “rice with junk on it?” Not that 
there was much choice. A very large woman began ladling bowls of 
rice from a tall metal pot, then a tasty sauce of cassava greens, and 


51 



The Masked Rider 


another spicier sauce with a hunk of meat in it. A single, big hunk of 
meat. 

While we ate, we razzed David about the morning’s adventure. 
On the way out of Limbe he had wanted to lead us through the Bo- 
tanical Garden, a park created by the Germans at the turn of the 
century to test the plants which they wanted to introduce to 
Cameroon. David had thought there was a road that would take us 
there, and stopped at a small, steep sideroad. “I think this is it. 
Anyone want to try it?” 

Elsa had taken one look at the steep little lane and decided she 
didn’t want to start her day with a vertical detour. She said she’d 
meet us at the roundabout. David’s wheels were already pointed up 
the hill and the rest of us followed him, straining and sweating in 
our lowest gears. At the top we found ourselves between two small 
houses, and at the end of a driveway . 

David scouted around the yard, found a footpath leading down 
between the trees, and looked a question at us as he pointed at the 
path. “Well, I know it’s in that direction.” 

In this way David and I were alike. If lost, I’d rather go around 
the world than turn back the way I’d come. So I said “sure” and 
Leonard and Annie nodded. The dirt path was too steep and narrow 
to ride on, so we walked our bikes down into the trees. An Eden 
closed around us; the path became a lush tunnel winding beneath a 
canopy of palm fronds and ancient trees. The earth was soft under- 
foot, and water gleamed on vines and brilliant flowers. 

So we told Elsa about the little expedition she’d missed by wait- 
ing at the roundabout. Leonard needled David: “Some guide. Right 
outside the hotel he gets us lost in the jungle!” 

David just repeated what I’d said to him when we realized we 
were lost. “Hey, we didn’t come here to know where we’re going!” I 
would later regret those words. 

We strolled back down the main street of Buea, where a few 
shops blared the usual distorted music. We began to notice many 
soldiers in khaki or camouflage fatigues, and David had warned us 
not to even show our cameras in Buea. The town remained an im- 
portant government center (missionaries may be crazy but they’re 
not stupid, and politicians may be stupid but they’re not crazy — 
both appreciate a good climate). Photography would be considered 
an act of espionage. The white walls and gilded cupolas of the old 


52 



Neil Peart 


governor’s mansion stood above the trees, and we walked toward it, 
passing more soldiers then metal sheds full of jeeps, tankers, and 
transporters, all in camouflage paint. All around were barracks, of- 
fices, and hundreds of soldiers standing guard, lounging around the 
buildings, or strolling along the road staring at us. 

Since we didn’t dare photograph the governor’s mansion, we 
thought we’d at least like a closer look, and found a ridge on the 
mountainside about a hundred yards away from it. As we looked 
across the steep chasm to the landscaped grounds and red-tiled roof, 
a soldier appeared on the wall and called out sternly, “What are you 
doing?” 

David called back, “Just looking!” 

The soldier held up his rifle and waved it at us. “You must not. 
Go away!” 

We heeded his words, and his gun, and went off shaking our 
heads. Drums and singing carried up the hill from the main road, 
and we followed the echoes to a large concrete-block gymnasium 
with a paved basketball court outside. David asked someone what 
was happening. 

“It is a competition with some of the other villages. They are 
practising inside, then they will perform here,” and he indicated the 
basketball court. We sat on the grass and watched the crowds gather 
and fill the bleachers on one side of the court. The people were 
handsome, men muscular and women walking with that upright 
head-carrying posture, their features seemingly rounded by the arc 
of their eyebrows. Many of the women wore their hair in thin braids 
looping out from their heads and back again, creating dark, filigreed 
haloes around their faces that were oddly attractive. 

Elsa’s “pusher,” Chifor Ignatius, appeared and attached himself 
to us with the effusiveness of a long-lost friend. I asked him if I 
would be able to take pictures of the dancing, but he made a worried 
face. “It would be dangerous. You do not have authorization.” I left 
the camera in its case on my belt. 

A row of chairs was placed at courtside for the mayor in his lei- 
sure suit and the local chiefs in pale robes and embroidered caps. A 
procession of musicians carried out their different kinds of drums 
and began to play them. Some were tall, slender wooden cylinders 
with protruding pegs to tension the animal-skin membranes, and 
were played as hand-drums, with a sound that could be varied by 


53 



The Masked Rider 


how they were struck, from a dark pulse-beat to a bongo-like tok. 
Slit drums, made of long hollow logs with a notch carved lengthwise 
along the middle, were played with pieces of tree-branch, and gave a 
loud, hollow resonance with a distinct note. The powerful slit drums 
had once carried messages between villages, they were the original 
“talking drums.” 

Two more drummers sat on the ground playing giant marimbas, 
called balofons, each of which consisted of several lengths of heavy 
wood. The wooden beams, or “keys,” were struck by heavy sticks 
with padded ends, and the sound too was like a giant marimba, a 
percussive attack with a clean, sharp note. These players supplied 
the melodic and rhythmic foundation for the other drummers, lay- 
ing down steady interweaving rolls which meshed like gears, and 
were propelled by the momentum of rattling shakers. 

Then came a leaping procession of agile young men in colorful 
pajamas, and another troupe dressed in flower-print pagnes. The 
lead dancer, in black with red trim, conducted the company into 
lines and shifting patterns around the basketball court as the drum- 
mers played a circular rhythm, pulsing and sensual. A story was be- 
ing told in that dance, though we could not follow it. It certainly 
seemed to be a rude story. At certain points the pajama-men fell to 
the ground and stretched out flat on their faces with their bodies 
undulating and hips pumping. This set the women in the audience 
shrieking with pleasure, while the children laughed at how silly it 
looked. 

The dancers left the stage to cheering applause. After a short 
break in the drumming, the mood suddenly changed. The drummers 
began a darker, hypnotic rhythm with a menacing undertone. Chifor 
Ignatius whispered that the juju dancers were coming now. 

Two dancers crept out wearing long black robes, their faces ban- 
daged in white gauze and crowned by large wooden masks, one a 
leering humanoid, the other a cow’s head with a sheaf of grass stuck 
in its mouth. More dancers came slinking out in bright blue pagnes , 
and they were also masked, one a chicken, one a goat, and one a dis- 
torted human face. 

Only the leader’s face could be seen. He skipped among the 
other dancers carrying a wooden bucket with a serpent-shaped 
branch in it. In his other hand he wielded a cluster of dark green 
leaves, which he used to sprinkle palm wine on the ground and the 


54 



Neil Peart 


other dancers. The crowd swayed in respectful silence. I sat cross- 
legged on the grass beside the drummers, my whole being resonat- 
ing to the drums and balofons. 

And the masks. There is something disturbingly inhuman about 
a moving body whose face you cannot see, even if it’s under a car- 
toon head. But how much more disturbing to watch a dancing fig- 
ure, genderless in a black robe, whose features are replaced by a 
fixed, malevolent leer. 

Suddenly the air was empty. The drumming stopped. Time de- 
scended and Space closed in around the masked dancers on the bas- 
ketball court, and they were gone. A wave of polite applause washed 
over the crowd, and I joined in, but there was no boisterous cheering 
or whistling. The bleachers quickly emptied as people slipped away 
into the evening shadows, hurrying to get home before dark. 


55 




“Drums along the sidewalk ” 
Sultan’s Palace, Foumban. 


56 





The rising sun shadowed the ridges of Mount Cameroon, 
unclouded for the first time and etched against the sky. The sun’s 
rays had not yet begun to move down the mountain, so the air re- 
tained the freshness of night. I crouched into the wind, arms tucked 
in close to my body against the chill. The country was awake as 
early as we were, even on a Sunday. Smoke drifted up from the 
houses, and the earliest minibuses began to pass in both directions. 
The first one I saw bore the portentous name of 'White Man,” a 
phrase I would hear a lot that day, as our fifty-mile ride took us 
around the shoulder of the mountain to the north, and into the inte- 
rior, to Kumba. This was where the adventure would begin. 

"White Man! White Man!” called a voice from somewhere, and I 
shook my head, then smiled grimly to imagine an African cycling 
through Canada to cries of "Black Man! Black Man!” But there was 
no doubt of it; we caused a sensation. "White Man!” assailed me 
from houses, fields, and passing buses. I learned later that it’s not so 
much a racial term as cultural, a generic name for Europeans and 
North Americans. Annie and Elsa were constantly called "white 
man” too, and even Leonard was considered a "white-man-black- 
man.” But at the time I didn’t know all that, and took to protesting 
these cries with a more exact description, calling out: “I’m not white 
— I’m beige!” which at least seemed to confuse them. 

Already Mount Cameroon was disappearing into cloud, and even 
in the shade of dense trees, the heat began to grow oppressive. In 
the tiny village of Muea we stopped for breakfast at a tin-roof shack, 
painted yellow with purple shutters. We drew a large audience as 
we sat outside on benches to enjoy the usual omelettes. Children 
pushed as near as they dared to stare at us, and especially at our bi- 
cycles, while scattered cries from the crowd continued to lump us all 
together as "male Caucasians.” Leonard laughed at this, but Elsa 
and Annie were not impressed. Dervla Murphy related in her book, 


57 




The Masked Rider 


Cameroon With Egbert , that when she grew tired of being called a 
man by the people of Cameroon, she took to opening her shirt to si- 
lence the doubters. 

As we started off again we left the crowds behind, and wheeled 
easily down the paved road, bordered by high grasses, trees, and 
stands of delicate bamboo. A stream bubbled beneath a mango tree, 
and a tulip-tree flamed with orange flowers. A few little houses ap- 
peared in the trees, and boys and women walked along the roadside 
with cutlasses in one hand and long bamboo stalks balanced on their 
heads. The mountain air was fresh and I felt a swelling in my chest, 
a sensation of freedom and joy that only cycling gives me. 

The people made me happy too. An old man raised his hand in 
greeting and called out “Welcome!” When I wished a “Good Morn- 
ing!” to an old woman as I pedaled by, she turned in surprise and 
answered, “You are welcome!” A wonderful way to greet a stranger, 
especially a strange-looking stranger. Even the police were friendly 
that morning. As I approached a checkpoint the officer made as if to 
flag me down, then laughed warmly and waved me on. 

In the little village of Banga Bakundu I received a riotous recep- 
tion, a crowd of little children so excited, jumping up and down, run- 
ning and frolicking as they chanted, “Bicycle Ride! Bicycle Ride! Bi- 
cycle Rider 

And an unseen voice sang me a little song from the trees: “White 
ma-a-an, where you go-o-o-ing?” 

A good question. I sang my answer back: “Kum-ba-a-a!” 

In each village twelve or fifteen little houses lined the road, built 
of plank and corrugated metal, with the occasional old-fashioned 
roof of woven palm fronds. The yards were swept clean, for bare dirt 
is preferred to grass, where snakes might hide. Scattered plots had 
been cleared from the forest where the villagers cultivated maize, 
yams, plantains, or cocoa. Many of the houses advertised produce 
for sale, by way of a bunch of plantains placed at the roadside, or an 
occasional heap of lumpy dirt-brown yams. Poverty, yes, but not 
squalor, and I made the distinction in my mind: “poverty with indus- 
try.” 

The same industry was demonstrated by the birds. Hundreds of 
yellow and black weavers gathered in noisy colonies dotted with 
their nests of woven grass. Each pair of birds built as many as six 
nests, and the empty ones were left as decoys to distract snakes and 


58 



Neil Peart 


larger birds. Whenever I passed a tree or line of bushes that served 
as “weaver village,” the air was suddenly alive with the sound of a 
thousand squeaky wheels. 

Yet on the whole the birdlife seemed meager. I had noticed it the 
first day out of Douala, but had thought perhaps the birds were 
quiet in the heat of the day. Only the bright red flicker of the occa- 
sional fire-finch moved in the leaves. Even at dawn the trees seemed 
strangely silent, and as the days went on I would see the pied crows, 
the kites soaring up high, but very few songbirds compared with the 
avian variety that had overwhelmed me in East Africa. I asked 
David about it, and he agreed it was true, but couldn’t explain it ei- 
ther. ‘You see a lot of the LBJs here,” he said. 

“LB J s?” 

‘Yeah. Little brown jobs!” 

Then the road dropped away in front of me, the sky suddenly 
wide at the edge of the mountain. “Here we go!” David said, and I 
stopped pedaling and coasted, tires humming as we gathered speed. 
At first David’s heavy load pulled him ahead of me, but my narrower 
tires and lower riding position gave me the aerodynamic advantage, 
and I quickly gained on him, then sped by with a whoop. Crouched 
over the handlebars, leaning into the wind, I felt my pulse acceler- 
ate. A momentary fear triggered a mental image of crashing, but I 
pushed it aside, resisting the impulse to reach for the brakes. My 
eyes were fixed on the road rushing toward me, and I heard only the 
wind, so strong that it lifted my helmet and pulled against the 
chinstrap. When that happened I knew I’d reached fifty miles an 
hour (from previous experiments with a speedometer) and I felt my- 
self grimace, eyes wide in a mask of melodramatic fear. When the 
hill flared and I finally slowed down, I had to laugh at myself; 
amused at my foolishness, relieved at my survival, and disappointed 
that the hill was over. 

As I began to pedal again I noticed small flocks of church-goers, 
mostly women arrayed in their Sunday-best pagnes , kerchiefs, and 
clean white blouses, walking along the road together with prayer 
books tucked under their arms. Choir music wafted through the 
open churches, and in the village of Yoke a boy stood outside the 
church, calling the faithful to worship by banging a stick against an 
old truck rim hanging from a tree. I stopped for a moment to watch 
a procession of women all in yellow pagnes and kerchiefs, then an- 


59 



The Masked Rider 


other group all in white, and a third group all in black with white 
collars and kerchiefs. Men in black suits walked alongside them, 
tapping out a marching cadence on small hand-drums. The parade 
filed into a palm-thatched pavilion in a field, where a speaker played 
recorded drum music from the altar at one end. The preacher stood 
waiting for his flock to assemble, but I waited no more. Leonard 
wheeled by and I rode off after him. 

A third cyclist fell in behind us, a boy riding a one-speed bike 
with a big plastic cooler on the back. As the three of us passed 
through the villages in a line, he honked a bulbhorn like Harpo 
Marx, and I soon saw that he was a “pedaling-pedlar,” stopping to 
sell plastic-wrapped sticks of red ice from the big cooler. Once the 
sale was made, he’d be after us again, making up in determination 
— and probably practice — what he lacked in equipment. Leonard 
and I smiled at each other to see that as we coasted down the short 
hills, he pedaled his old bike like mad to stay with us, even down- 
hill. He would fall back on the climbs, not having the gears we did, 
but he always came up behind us once more. I heard another call 
from the side of the road. 'White Man!” Or perhaps it was "Ice 
Man!” a call for the freezie-man, as he stopped there and we didn’t 
see him again. 

Neither did we see any more villages as we entered an uninhab- 
ited area called the Mungo Forest. Impenetrable growth closed over 
the road, trees, undergrowth, and vines winding together in green 
profusion. The silk-cotton trees towered overhead, gray columns ris- 
ing to canopies of small leaves. The odd dead one rose stark and 
leafless, but every branch was intact and silhouetted against the 
sky. An ancient, primitive kind of palm raised its fronds upward in 
fans. All that was missing was a diplodocus, maybe a couple of ptero- 
dactyls. 

Midday was approaching, and Leonard and I began to look for a 
suitable siesta spot. We figured we’d covered half of the fifty miles to 
Kumba, agreed that a break would be nice, and had no doubt the 
others would concur, particularly Elsa. An oasis of grass and shade 
at the side of the road invited us in, and we parked our bikes be- 
neath a row of oil palms. I put down my foam sleeping-pad, spread 
my brand-new pagne over it, and used my rolled-up sleeping bag for 
a pillow. Everything was set. Leonard had made his own little nest 
and was nearly asleep already. I pulled out the Ethics and lay back 


60 



Neil Peart 


under the tree. Having finished the lengthy introduction, I was now 
ready for the real thing. 

I read the opening sentence. “Every rational activity aims at 
some end or good.” 

Well. 

I might as well have stopped right there. That statement alone 
could give me enough to think about for the whole trip. If not for a 
whole life. 

Every rational activity aims at some end or good. Okay, what is 
“good”? Define your terms , for a start. Well, I knew that Aristotle 
considered the highest good to be happiness. That helps. So every 
rational activity should aim at happiness. That makes sense. Let’s 
try the second sentence. 

But wait — is it always true? Reading Aristotle, for example, 
certainly one of the most rational of activities, does that really aim 
at happiness ? Enlightenment; stimulation; distraction; hopefully 
education — are these happiness? 

Ah, no. But they aim at happiness. Every word counts. 

And what about a thing like this ? What about bicycling around 
Cameroon? 

Oh, of course! Every word counts. He said rational activity. No 
one would call this a rational activity. 

I saw that Elsa definitely wouldn’t, as she rode up with David 
and Annie. Annie smiled, David smiled. Elsa glowered. The heat was 
getting to her again. As she groaned and stretched herself on the 
ground, she asked if anyone knew the temperature. I got up to 
check the little thermometer on my handlebar bag. “Ninety.” 

She groaned again as she lay down and rested the back of her 
hand over her eyes. 

Leonard lifted the bandana from his face for a moment, his eyes 
flickering open. “Hey white man!” 

I turned on my radio DJ voice for him. “Hey-y-y, it’s a balmy 
ninety degrees here in the Mungo Forest, and it’s time to go look at 
the white folks!” Leonard laughed and pulled the bandana back over 
his face, and Annie remarked that she was tired of telling people she 
was a white woman. 

I turned to David. “Not many white people come here, huh?” 

He shook his head. “A few European tourists come to Cameroon, 
but they only visit the coast for the beaches. Or they fly to the north 


61 



The Masked Rider 


for the scenery, or Waza, the game park. Not many would travel 
around here.” 

"I wonder why that is,” I said, “it seems so beautiful.” 

Elsa opened her eyes, “I can think of ninety good reasons,” she 
said, "Fahrenheit.” 

I opened the Ethics once again, working my way through "The 
science that studies the supreme Good for man is politics,” which 
would no doubt raise a few modern eyebrows, though the next, 
"Politics is not an exact science,” would set a few modern heads nod- 
ding in agreement. Then my mind rested comfortably on one that 
most everyone could deal with. "The end is no doubt happiness, but 
views of happiness differ.” Indeed. 

Then I got to the quote from some guy called Hesiod: 

“That man is best who sees the truth himself; 

Good too is he who listens to wise counsel. 

But who is neither wise himself nor willing 

To ponder wisdom is not worth a straw” 

By that point I was dizzy enough, and lay the open book over my 
face with a sigh, wondering if I wanted to be worth a straw. White 
man , where you going? 

As everyone lay quietly beneath the oil palms, dozing in the wel- 
come shade, once again I was struck by the silence of the forest. We 
were surrounded by trees, vines, and undergrowth, with plenty of 
food for anything to live on, and yet the chirp of a bird was so rare 
as to be almost startling. I couldn’t figure it out. Maybe away from 
the road I might find some birds. 

I rose quietly and followed a faint trail back into the trees, 
where cocoa and coffee plants were scattered among the wild 
bushes. A few fruits lay on the ground near the cocoa shrubs, mushy 
yellow oblongs split open to reveal the brown seeds, from which my 
beloved chocolate was derived. I picked up a seed to smell it, but de- 
tected no perfume of Cadbury’s. 

As I went deeper into the forest, still following the winding little 
path, I became a bit uneasy, wondering where it might lead, and to 
whom it might belong. The path wasn’t well-tracked enough to be 
walked on every day , so perhaps it was only used by the farmer. His 
coffee and cocoa plants were so casually located among the trees and 
bushes that they could almost have grown there naturally. 


62 



Neil Peart 


When the path split into three even fainter tracks, I decided I’d 
gone far enough and would turn back. But just then I heard a rus- 
tling from the bushes ahead. An old man was standing before me, 
short and very thin, with wrinkled skin draped over his bones as 
loosely as the ragged trousers that were his only clothing. His 
splayed teeth were yellow, like the whites of his eyes, but his smile 
was unmistakably warm. He seemed remarkably unsurprised to find 
me there, certainly less so than I’d been to come upon him. In slow, 
considered English he asked me where I was from, and I told him. 
He nodded. “Aah, Canada.” Still smiling, he asked me if I was com- 
ing from Douala. 

“Yes, I am traveling around Cameroon by bicycle, with my 
friends back at the road, and so far we have been to Douala, Tiko, 
Limbe, and Buea.” 

He nodded and smiled, contemplating. 'You are proceeding to 
Kumba now.” He extended his hand, wished me a pleasant journey, 
and turned and walked back into the bushes. Through the leaves I 
saw him lay down on the ground to continue his siesta. 

White man, where you going? 

I am proceeding to Kumba. 


When we set off again Leonard and I stayed back with Elsa, and 
let David go ahead with Annie. The rolling hills continued, a series 
of short, steep ups and downs. As I sweltered past an old woman la- 
boring up the hill with a load on her head, she turned to me and 
said: “Ashea” Spoken in a soft friendly voice, I took it to be a local 
greeting, and began repeating it to others who said it to me: a sweet 
little girl with a basket as big as herself on her head, a boy startled 
by my sudden appearance beside him. 

Later I learned that this beautiful-sounding word ashea meant 
“sorry,” or “sympathy,” and these wonderful people were expressing 
their sympathy for me. I was touched by that thought. What a con- 
trast it made to all the cries of 'White man!” In the midst of their 
difficult lives, these people could actually feel sorry for my labors. 
Ashea. Yeah. 

Poor Elsa was falling behind again, and Leonard and I had to 
stop at the bottom of nearly every hill to wait for her. Once when Fd 


63 



The Masked Rider 


lost sight of both of them behind me, I stopped in a valley and 
straddled my bike for a few minutes, only to see Leonard come cruis- 
ing slowly up the road, steering with one hand while the other held 
a black umbrella over his head. 

At the top of the next long climb we saw a pavilion with a 
thatched, pointed roof. The small building beside it was decorated 
with metal signs advertising beer and sodas, so we pulled in to see if 
we might buy some drinks and give Elsa a rest. When she arrived 
we moved into the shade of the pavilion, sprawling on the benches 
with bottles of orange and grapefruit soda. Five or six children fol- 
lowed us inside, crowding over to the other side and staring at us si- 
lently. The patriarch, a spare old man with graying hair, came into 
the pavilion and greeted us cordially, though he spoke no English or 
French. A man in his forties, the patriarch’s son, spoke a little En- 
glish, and introduced himself as Albert Assante. He shook hands 
with us in the two-handed way: left hand supporting his own right 
wrist in an especially nice gesture, which symbolised that his hand 
was so heavy with respect that it took two hands to hold it up. 

An enormously fat woman sat across from us, her great bulk 
draped in a flowered tent-sized dress, and a wide smile on her wide 
face. She sat immobile, buddha-like; only a pudgy hand occasionally 
pulled the neck of her dress up to wipe the perspiration from her 
face. She seemed to speak no English, but she laughed frequently at 
something , her deep, booming voice so natural, so unrestrained, that 
it was almost frightening. 

“Voodoo mama,” I whispered to Leonard, and he chuckled, nod- 
ding in agreement. Albert Assante introduced her as his sister. 

Albert asked about our journey, and our homes, but he was par- 
ticularly entranced by Leonard. “I don’t wish to be impolite,” Albert 
said to him, “but I am wondering something.” 

“What’s that?” Leonard said. 

“Well, I am wondering how it is that you are American, and 
yet — ■” he pointed to his own arm, “you are the same color as we 
are.” 

We laughed at that one, and Leonard tried to explain. “There are 
many black people in the United States,” and Elsa and I nodded in 
corroboration. Elsa added, “America is a country of many different 
peoples.” 

Albert Assante looked from one to the other of us in disbelief, 
completely mystified, while the rest of his family waited for his ex- 


64 



Neil Peart 


planation. The Voodoo Mama wiped her face with her dress. The 
three of us looked at each other, uncertain where to begin. Was it 
possible that these people, living in West Africa in the twentieth cen- 
tury, had never heard of slavery ? Didn’t they know of the thousands 
of Africans who had been taken from their homes and shipped off to 
America? Or the millions of black people, the descendants of the 
slaves, who lived there now? 

Yes, it was possible, and no, they didn’t. We were — what? 
aghast , I suppose. It seemed inconceivable that the survivors would 
not even be aware of one of the greatest crimes of the ages, a 
scourge that had been the most virulent right in this part of Africa. 

But their tribal histories would have told the local stories, of the 
wars, the raids, the kidnappings by neighboring tribes, the indi- 
vidual tragedies that had robbed them of their people. The fate of 
the victims — being sold by their African captors to the Arab or Eu- 
ropean slavers — would never have been told. Their own ancestors 
wouldn’t have known about it, as of course they hadn’t been taken. 

What little education these people might have received, perhaps 
from the missionaries, would never have included this sorry history. 
Their Christian teachers would not feel it necessary to tell them 
what other Christians (and other Africans, it must be stressed) had 
done to their people. Still, it was incredible. 

I made an attempt. “Hundreds of years ago, many Africans were 
taken away as slaves, and a lot of them ended up in America. Then 
they were freed, and millions of their descendants live there now.” 

It seemed strange to say, such an oversimplification. But how 
can you not oversimplify a saga like that? As the Assante family con- 
tinued to stare at us, uncomprehending, I even felt a vicarious guilt, 
like a German meeting Jewish people in Poland who had never 
heard of the Holocaust, or that there were Jews in America, and try- 
ing to explain it to them. Ashea, I wished I could say. Ashea. 

Elsa pulled out some little cards, the same as the ones I’d seen 
her give to the mayor of Limbe, and handed them around. Curious, I 
asked for one too. “Beyond War” said the front of the folded card, 
and the attached lapel pin was a green and blue globe. I read on: 

We live on one planet, with one life-support 
system. The survival of all humanity, all life, is totally 
interdependent. I believe that the development of 
nuclear weapons has forever changed our world. 

War is now obsolete. 


65 



The Masked Rider 


I have decided to work together with others to 
build a world beyond war. 

And on the inside: 

I believe conflict can be resolved only with a 
sincere search for truth and a spirit of good will. 

Therefore, I will not pre-occupy myself with an en- 
emy. Instead, I will accept the responsibility to work 
for creative solutions that will benefit everyone. 

I will wear this pin each day to express my 
commitment to these beliefs. 

Continuing on the back: 

This pin symbolizes the earth we all share, 
surrounded by a spirit of good will. When you wear 
this pin, remember, pray or meditate on this thought 
until it becomes a reality. 

I don’t know what the Assante family made of all this New Age 
praying and meditating for world peace, but they were glad to re- 
ceive the pins and cards anyway, and waved and smiled as we set off 
again. 

At the sign for Kumba the paved road came to an abrupt end, 
along with the trees and grass — and any notion of earthly beauty. 
We entered a desolate place of brown dirt and stark, dilapidated 
buildings of crumbling earth and blotched corrugated metal. The 
streets were rippled and heaved like an unmade bed, so rough that 
David warned us, “Don’t even bother riding on the road, it’s a mess. 
Just stick to the sides.” We rode slowly amid the reek of open drains 
and garbage piled outside the rows of hovels. Smoke twisted up from 
half-burned heaps of refuse, and people squatted in the doorways, 
silent and dour, squinting up at us with hooded eyes. A few buses 
and taxis crawled along the street, squeezing between the bumps, 
potholes, and sleepy-looking pedestrians. Abandoned cars and vans, 
rusting hulks left to rot where they died, had sunk to their hubs in 
the dirt. 

“What a horrible place,” I said to David, “a real hell-hole.” 

“Yes, it’s not very nice. Sometimes people get upset when I bring 
them to towns like this.” 

'Well, no, I’m glad in a way. It’s important to know a place like 
this exists. But it’s one of the worst things I’ve ever seen.” 

'Yeah, I know what you mean.” 

The Queen’s Hotel was an anonymous gateway, a walled-in com- 
pound of cinder blocks along an alley of neglected shacks. Across the 


66 



Neil Peart 


street a rooster chased a squawking hen between the old car doors 
and mysterious rusty castings which leaned against a wall. A feral 
brown dog trotted down the alley tongue dragging as he sniffed at 
the living scum in the ditches. Like all West African dogs, its close 
descent from the jackals and wild dogs was apparent in its rangy 
body, erect ears, short hair, and suspicious eyes. 

Inside the Queen’s Hotel a dingy corridor led to a row of tiny 
rooms, one of which was my very own. An iron bed sagged under 
soiled cloth; the walls were grimy and colorless under a naked light 
bulb. An ancient floor-standing fan loomed in the corner like a ’50s 
robot, beside a scratched and wobbly table. At the dark end of the 
hall, a shared bathroom of slimy bare concrete smelled of urine and 
mould. 

The thing of it was, Kumba was not especially poor. It had been 
a prosperous market town since German colonial times, serving a 
rich agricultural area to its northwest, and also had fresh-water 
fishing at a nearby crater lake. The town boasted a rail link to 
Douala to transport its goods, and the roads connecting it with the 
coastal and northern towns had been built with American aid money 
in the ’60s. 

A certain level of material wealth for the citizens was apparent 
too, among what came to seem like a spiritual poverty. From the ho- 
tel gate, above the mean shacks in that squalid alley, I counted nine 
television antennas, and a large color TV played in the bar of the 
Queen’s Hotel. People appeared well-fed, and though their dress was 
slovenly, it was not ragged. I had seen much poorer places than 
Kumba, in China and in other parts of Africa, and would see many 
more-impoverished villages around Cameroon. But none would be as 
miserable as Kumba. Its wretchedness was not a product of poverty; 
something else was at work. 

As we took turns rinsing ourselves in the uninviting bathroom, I 
heard rain on the metal roof, and the pleasant smell of wet dust 
briefly replaced the reek of garbage and mould. Clean and changed, 
I sat in the bar waiting for the others, and had my first opportunity 
to watch Cameroon television. I took a seat on the red vinyl couches 
with three young locals who were watching a West African pop 
group of about twelve singers and musicians. A lead singer wailed 
over chanting vocal refrains, all in French, to a rhythm of pulsing 
bass drum and syncopated snare stabs. The music was fetching and 
soulful, but the monotonous song continued without pause or modu- 


67 



The Masked Rider 


lation for about ten minutes — great dancing music, if a little te- 
dious for listening. 

But it ended suddenly after all. The power went off, and when 
the others came up to see what had happened, the manager told us 
the electricity had been “seized.” Whatever he meant by that, it was 
seized for the rest of the evening. (When we returned from town, he 
told us the power had been on again for a short while, but now it 
was seized once more. “Dang!” said Leonard. “We have missed the 
window of opportunity!”) 

We walked to the market in search of food, threading the alley- 
ways past the wrecked cars, scurrying chickens, smouldering refuse, 
mournful-looking people, and the corrugated metal shacks, which 
seemed on the verge of collapse. The market was closed, empty, 
trash-filled and desolate, and in a West African town, if the market 
is closed, the town is closed. The market is the heart of the place, in 
so many ways; people even measure time by it. A week was a “mar- 
ket week,” sometimes four or eight days, and the villagers would say 
that something happened “three markets ago,” like the American In- 
dians measured time by moons. The market was the meeting place, 
shopping mall, community center, playground, the arena of 
salemanship and social graces, and the forum of discontent. 

But in Kumba, there was no produce on the tables, no bright-col- 
ored heaps of fruit and vegetables and grain, no talk and laughter, 
no crowds of people, and at first we could find nowhere to eat. Fi- 
nally David stopped at a particularly grubby stall, and the sour- 
faced woman agreed to fix us something. 

“Mmm!” I said, as she ladled out bowls of rice with beans and 
ndole (the green sauce). “Rice with junk on it again.” 

Else looked up, “Are you getting fed up with the food too?” 

“No, not at all. I like rice with junk on it. Um — I guess you 
don’t?” 

She made a negative sound and shook her head. I took a drink of 
lemon soda and thought to myself 'well, she’s complained about the 
heat and the hills every day, the forty-eight mile ride today, and now 
the food. There’s not much left.’ If she didn’t like the cycling or the 
food, and certainly the hotels weren’t much to look forward to, with 
the enduring exception of the Atlantic Beach in Limbe — it was go- 
ing to be a joyless journey for her. 

As we strolled the alleys of Kumba in search of bottled water, a 
few calls of “male Caucasian!” assailed us, along with hisses and in- 


65 



Neil Peart 


decipherable muttered comments. The waters of Mount Cameroon 
were commonly available and seemed safer than the local water, so I 
decided to stay with that as long as it remained cheap and plentiful. 
But when I asked the price of Tangui water in an untidy little shop 
in Kumba, the rodent-faced proprietor tried to double the price. I 
shook my head and put down what I knew to be the real price, and 
he took it with a shrug. Then, as I walked out of the shop, stepping 
carefully over the uncovered cesspool of a ditch, a sneering layabout 
called to me, “Hey, give me your water!” Again I shook my head and 
walked on. 

What was with this unfriendly and slovenly town of Kumba? 
Why were these people so unhappy and impolite, so lacking in pride 
for themselves and their surroundings? An ironic little card in my 
hotel room admonished the guest, “Have respect for yourself and 
your surroundings.” Good advice for the town, rather than the 
guests. 

I don’t know what “kumba” meant in the local language, but I 
ran across it in the Swahili dictionary. In the lingua franca of East 
Africa, kumba means “to clear out, take away. Sweep out a place and 
collect rubbish.” This too would have been good advice for Kumba, 
the most wretched and miserable little hell-hole I have ever visited. 


69 




Post-modern, avant-garde wall painting. 
Outside a bar in Togo. 


70 



ketsl kippy 


The English have a saying about their neighbor to the north: 
“The only good thing about Scotland is the road leading out of it.” 
Petty chauvinism aside, you could not say that about Kumba. As 
pleasant as it was to be leaving that hell-hole, the road was no bet- 
ter than purgatory. 

At dawn the streets were hazy in the dust and half-light. A fetid 
miasma hovered over the ditches, and the smouldering garbage gave 
off its own reek. Shabby figures shuffled in the gloom; women on 
the way to market carried basins of dirty yams on their heads. Men 
leaned against the abandoned vehicles and called out the unwel- 
come greeting, ‘White man! White man!” Women and children 
huddled silently around the water tap, waiting their turn. 

Passing trucks and minibuses stirred the road into choking 
clouds as I pedaled down the main street, and I pulled my bandana 
up over my face like a bandit. A crumbling bridge led out of town, 
past garbage and wrecked cars tumbled down the side of a sad little 
stream. I looked up the hill to see the one nice building in Kumba: 
the Catholic church, of course. The House of God was in order, but 
not the House of Man. Beside me a young guy called out, “Wrong 
way!” and I wondered what he knew that I didn’t. 

Perhaps he knew about the road. My wheels sank into the soft 
earth of a bumpy and rutted track of red dirt, and I had to steer 
carefully to aim for the higher parts. Traffic was scarce: a couple of 
trucks, a moped, a bicycle with an ancient chainsaw strapped to the 
back, but the “male Caucasian” calls continued from field workers. 
Passing minibuses answered them for me: “Let Them Say” and “Lov- 
ing Brother.” 

By 7:00 the children were on their way to school, the girls in 
blue dresses and the boys in blue shirts, and I smiled as three of 
them began jogging beside me. The two girls’ rubber sandals flip- 
flopped along; the boy’s bare feet slapped the earth, and I heard the 



71 



The Masked Rider 


rhythm of their breathing. They said nothing, hardly even looked 
my way, just trotted along beside me for more than a mile. Somehow 
cheered by their presence and their unsmiling stamina, I stopped for 
a moment to give them each one of the colorful pens I’d brought for 
just this purpose. 

Away from Kumba the friendliness of the country people re- 
turned, and I began to hear calls of “good morning” and an occa- 
sional bonjour. Men raised their cutlasses in greeting, and one voice 
called out, in basso profundo, “Hello guy!” Many more children 
walked along the road on their way to school, and, less taciturn than 
my “running escort,” called out to me. A pair of old ladies tottered 
along together, and one of them offered my favorite greeting: “Wel- 
come!” 

But as the people became friendlier, the road became less so. 
The soft earth gave way to rocks and gravel glued together with 
dust, and I had to pick my way carefully, eyes always down on the 
road, steering the bike across and back to avoid the larger stones. 
The other riders soon caught up with me. Their mountain bikes, 
with fatter tires and wider handlebars, were more suited to this 
kind of terrain than my touring bike. 

On one rocky hill I chose an unfortunate course. A large stone 
deflected my front wheel to the side, and I jerked desperately for 
balance as my bicycle headed for the ditch. On roads like that I left 
my toe-clips loose so I could get my feet out in a hurry, but there was 
no time. Suddenly I was on my back, sprawled on the stones with 
the bike on top of me. I felt a stab in my spine, and my camera and 
tape recorder went spilling out of the open handlebar bag into the 
dust. I muttered a curse, but seemed to be okay, though I reached 
back and felt a tear in my shirt and the wetness of blood. Pushing 
the bike off my legs, I got to my feet and brushed off the dust. 
David and Leonard were just ahead of me, at the top of the hill, and 
called down to see if I was all right. Like Pee Wee Herman, I told 
them, “I meant to do that.” 

“Nice break-dancing!” Leonard called back. 

By noon we had only covered twenty-five miles of that terrible 
road. Riding in front of the pack again, I was stopped at a guard 
post just before the junction with a paved road, and the gendarme 
asked me, in French, where I was going. Disgruntled and unwilling 
to recount the whole story, I answered “N’djamena,” which was our 


72 



Neil Peart 


ultimate destination, though it was three weeks and more than a 
thousand miles away. 

His eyebrows raised, and he said: “C’est possible ?” 

“ Oui , c’est possible ” I assured him wearily, and he went on to 
ask me why I was traveling by velo — bicycle — rather than by 
voiture — vehicle. I told him the usual story about how you see 
more traveling by bicycle, meet more people, and it’s a better way to 
travel. Shaking his head at my foolishness, he waved me on, then 
stopped David to ask him the same questions. 

That guard post represented the former border between English 
and French Cameroon, and even after more than twenty-five years 
of amalgamation, few roads cross that frontier. Apart from this dirt 
track from Kumba to Loum, the highway we had ridden between 
Douala and Tiko was the only other one, and much political noise 
had been made at the opening of that “Highway of Reunification.” 
This, then, had been the “Dirt Road of Reunification.” 

Since we were in a French-speaking area once more, “Homme 
blanc!” replaced “male Caucasian,” though I also heard a pleasant 
“Bon courage , mon frere” Yet another security check interrupted my 
passage, soldiers this time, but they spoke English, and when they 
asked what we were doing, they seemed glad to learn we were tour- 
ists, traveling in their country just to see it. 

From there we turned north again, happy to be back on a paved 
road, with painted lines and even a narrow shoulder as sanctuary 
from the speeding traffic, though it was hilly country, with a lot of 
climbing in the midday heat. 

Hot and thirsty, I stopped at a drink shop in the busy hillside 
village of Manjo, and sat in front of it drinking grapefruit soda — 
Pamplemousse — and watching the schoolchildren return to their 
afternoon classes. A crowd of them gathered around my bicycle and 
me, staring and giggling, until a stern schoolmaster came along. He 
stood there and yelled at them, delivering a loud tirade of abuse and 
chasing the loitering boys around, swatting at the backs of their 
heads until they all ran away. 

He reminded me of my Grade One teacher, Miss Jenner. An An- 
glophile spinster (she spent her summers in England and always re- 
turned with a new Austin or Morris) Miss Jenner shared a house 
with our kind and soft-spoken principal, Miss Gilleland. One winter 
day I saw Miss Jenner drive by in her prim little Austin while a 


73 



The Masked Rider 


bunch of us were throwing snowballs at each other — blocks away 
from the schoolyard — and when I got to school she grabbed me by 
the collar and dragged me to the office. She asked why I’d been 
throwing snowballs, and I said something like 'Well, some guys 
threw snowballs at us, and Tommy said 'let’s get ’em,’ so we threw 
snowballs at them.” 

Her ruddiness deepened by quivering rage, she cried: "You stu- 
pid, stupid boy!,” and laid into my hand viciously with the heavy wo- 
ven "strap” that was the favored instrument in those days of scho- 
lastic capital punishment. Even at the time I was wounded by her 
insult more than the injury, not understanding why I was a "stupid, 
stupid boy,” and I would always wonder why a friendly snowball 
fight well away from school grounds so enraged her. Just as I won- 
dered why this African martinet reacted so violently to his charges’ 
crime of looking at a white man and his bicycle. I suspect they each 
had other frustrations than us children, and found us convenient 
"whipping boys.” 

Leonard and Annie rode up together, Leonard cool as ever in big 
sunglasses and a blue bandana over his head, and Annie with her 
glasses crooked and hair sticking out of her helmet. They joined me 
for a Pamplemousse and a seat on the ground. Time went by, along 
with several more Pamplemousses, and when an hour and a half 
had passed, we began to worry a little. Finally David pedaled up, 
looking weary and broken, and announced that Elsa was having a 
tough time with the heat and the hills. He’d had to wait for her on 
every hill, and, he reported, she’d even been putting on the brakes 
on the downhills. He was going to put her in a taxi for the last ten 
miles to Nkongsamba. 

Elsa walked slowly up the last hill, pushing her bike, and col- 
lapsed beside us. She too was weary and broken, and her silence 
was bitter, spreading in a slow wave over us all. When David had ar- 
ranged the taxi for her, and loaded her bike into it, the rest of us 
started off again, up and over the wooded hills. 

I felt badly for Elsa, but I could imagine what David had en- 
dured as well, his patience stretched to the limit by having to stop 
for her again and again, as well as receiving the abuses of her frus- 
tration. She’d been ready to give up, catch a bus to Douala and go 
home, and only David’s urging had brought her this far. But I knew 
he’d receive no thanks, either for his patience or his encouragement. 


74 



Neil Peart 


No one ever did. And what good is self-denial if no one appreciates 
it? 

A minibus roared by, its sign offering a Nietzschean piece of ad- 
vice for Elsa, David, and all of us: “Volonte” Will. 

Seeing David riding ahead of me, downcast but stoic, I rode up 
beside him and said, “Good news. I’ve been talking with the Pope, 
and he agrees that you should get a sainthood!” 

He grinned and replied “But Neil, I’m Jewish!” 

“I’m sure that’s not a problem; it’s been overcome before. I un- 
derstand most of the Holy Trinity, and even the Holy Mother of God 
bore the same stigma.” 

He laughed and nodded, then we crouched down to concentrate 
on a fast descent between the trees. High volcanic mountains rose 
on either side, wooded slopes, bare shoulders of pale green, and 
higher mountains of cloud piled on top of them. A sign announced 
the village of Ngwa, and at the end of a row of twelve huts, back 
from the road, crouched a witch-doctor’s house, set apart by carv- 
ings and idols in the yard. A sign advertised cures for everything 
from madness to sterility. 

And finally, Nkongsamba (the “N” silent in local pronunciation) 
where David left me at the crossroads to wait for Leonard and 
Annie, while he climbed the hill into town to check on a hotel. A 
crowd of youths gathered around and politely asked about my trav- 
els. I took it as a tribute to the quality of my bluffed French that one 
of them asked me if I was from Paris(!), while another asked if I car- 
ried a notebook and an appareil-photo — camera — to record my 
travels in his country. That was an unusual and incisive question, 
and I smiled and nodded, telling him “Oui” 

On the side of a steep road overlooking the suburbs of 
Nkongsamba perched a collection of irregular buildings with pink 
walls, topped by an uneven roof of corrugated metal, part flat, part 
peaked, and one end rising to a pyramid. The only sign announcing 
it as a hotel was a bizarre cartoon figure painted on the wall, a pipe- 
smoking biped with horns and tail carrying a sign reading “STOP — 
HOTEL.” Across the wall beside it the word HAPPY was repeated 
several times. 

David cycled up to the market to fetch Elsa while the rest of us 
carried our bikes inside, to another variation on the M.C. Escher in- 
terior we’d seen at the Hotel Kontchupe in Douala. I squeezed my 


75 



The Masked Rider 


heavy bike around winding corridors, lugged it up two or three steps 
only to wrestle it back down two or three steps, then down another 
narrow hallway. 

I had a room to myself at the Hotel Happy, though it was on an 
inside corridor, so that rather than enjoying a view down into the 
valley, my tiny window looked out on the dark, airless hall. The 
room too was tiny, with robin’s-egg-blue walls barely six inches on 
either side of the bed, but the bathroom was vast, big enough to 
park my bicycle in. In fact, as a bathroom it made a great garage, 
because there was no water. “It has been seized,” pronounced 
Leonard solemnly. However, buckets of rain water were delivered to 
our rooms, and a wash and shave improved my appearance and 
even my mood. 

David led us up to the main part of town, walking along the 
dark road with our little flashlights. We passed the walled-in mar- 
ketplace, La Grande Marche , a bakery, and bright shops full of 
canned goods and imported liquors. A few Mercedes and an unlikely 
Renault Turbo Fuego tooled down the paved streets. Yes, it was 
about as unlike Kumba as could be: a clean, prosperous, and 
friendly town, where the people smiled and greeted us, or at worst 
minded their own business without passing rude comments to pale- 
skinned visitors. We liked it there. 

And we liked the Restaurant Touristique too. After a week of 
market-stall chop-houses, and the longest, hardest, and hottest day 
yet on the bikes, we were truly ready for a real restaurant meal. A 
sandwich-board on a side-street directed us into a small turquoise 
building, where we sat around a small table and checked out the 
menu. 

“Look what they have,” Elsa said. “Salad!” 

“I think I read ... um ... that salad is, like, the worst thing you 
can eat in Africa,” Annie said. 

“That and ice cream,” I said. The waiter brought us a jug of wa- 
ter. “And water.” 

‘Yeah, a lot of times greens and things aren’t washed too well,” 
David advised, “but it’s probably okay here. It’s a good restaurant, 
and I’m going to take the chance.” 

“Yeah man!” Leonard said. 

The salad was good (though I \yould pay for it later). Then came 
plates of chicken and french fries, with, of course, bowls of rice with 


76 



Neil Peart 


junk on it — to remind us where we were. We laughed over the 
tough and scrawny chicken, commenting that we’d seen the hard 
life it would have led, constantly running to escape the wheels of 
speeding minibuses. 

“These,” Leonard said, “are really free-range chickens.” 

Elsa had recovered from her heat exhaustion, and had regained 
her usual manner. She “hadn’t expected it to be so hot” (What did 
she expect in Equatorial Africa?) and she “did just fine when it 
wasn’t too hot” (she didn’t) and to David: “Why did you have to pick 
such hilly roads?” David — the newly-beatified Saint David — just 
shook his head and laughed. 

Back at the Hotel Happy, my room was sweltering and stuffy. 
Even the little window into the hall had been shuttered for the 
night. I ministered to the cuts on my back, the scrapes on my hip, 
the myriad of red bug-bites on my arms and legs, took my anti-ma- 
laria tablet, chased a large beetle across the room and under the 
door, and tried to fix my camera. The roads and my break-dance 
tumble had pounded it to death. 

When I’d managed to resurrect it, I settled into bed. Sigh. It 
sagged like a hammock, and I was able to touch three walls without 
moving. But, I was moving — tossing and turning as two fists 
wrestled inside my stomach. All those meals in filthy little stalls 
hadn’t affected me, but the first one with some pretense of elegance 
(clean glasses, knives and forks on a plastic tablecloth) seemed to 
have disagreed with me. 'Probably the salad,’ I reflected with a 
healthy dose of rue. My cuts and scratches chafed against the rough 
blankets, and the insect bites itched. I was really having fun now. 

And with all that, it was a noisy place — another “quiet night in 
Cameroon.” The same song seemed to drone and throb for hours 
from the bar across the hall, while I shifted and twitched in the air- 
less heat. In the room beside me an enterprising woman entertained 
a succession of “gentleman friends,” while the walls reverberated 
with her wheezy giggle and the deep, swaggering laughter of her 
companions. 

An occasional few minutes of silence, then another knock at the 
door, the tinkle of glasses, and the laughter began again. She was 
doing a brisk business at the Hotel Happy. 


77 






4 r J tke larfir fcowl 


In this reporter’s opinion, insufficient research has been devoted 
to the effects of Third World stomach distress on one’s dreams. Per- 
sonal experience in China and Africa has proven that the most vivid 
and bizarre dreams are created under these conditions, far beyond 
the wildest hallucinations of any “mind-expanding” drug. My advice 
to those substance-abusers who seek cheap thrills and momentary 
elevation by way of addictive and messy chemical concoctions, “Stop 
wasting your time and money — try dysentery instead.” I’ll start a 
foundation, print up some buttons. “Just say o-o-o-o-o-o-h.” 

I awoke in a dizzy fog, sprawled sideways on the bed with my 
legs entwined in the sheets, and shook my head until my cheeks 
rattled. What a weird dream. An armored helicopter had carried me 
from Ibronto to the east coast of Canada, where we flew into the 
back of a truck, which drove us through a tunnel under the Atlantic 
Ocean, to Halifax(?). Apparently I was there to do an interview, but I 
found myself in a clothing store, doing a phone interview with a guy 
named Fletcher. Anyway ... a song was playing in the store, a plain- 
tive ballad called “The Larger Bowl.” Something about loneliness 
and the misfortunes of life, I recall. No such song as far as I know, 
but I like the title. While I listened to the song I read a review of it 
in a trade paper, written by my friend Rod Morgenstein — who is a 
great drummer, but not a record reviewer for Billboard. 

The Hotel Happy was silent at last. The monotonous pounding 
music and the wheezy giggle of the courtesan next door had ceased, 
and with a sigh I got up to go to the bathroom. Again. A little after 
5:00, while it was still dark, an eerie wailing resounded from some- 
where far away. A muezzin , the Muslim “cantor,” sang out from the 
top of the minaret, and called the faithful to bow toward Mecca. 

“Prayer is better than sleep,” goes one of the opening lines, and 
although I’d contest that assertion (especially at 5:00 a.m.), I do find 
a haunting quality in the song of the muezzin. The strange music 


79 



The Masked Rider 


somehow transcends religion in a way that hymns and gospel music 
never do (when you don’t understand the words, they can’t preach at 
you) and the exotic Arabic scales and language obscure the underly- 
ing meaning. 

The neighborhood roosters soon joined in the muezzin's song, 
creating a discordant morning concert as I loaded my bicycle and 
hauled it over the steps and down the dark hallways. While I sat on 
a low wall outside and waited for the others, the sky faded to pale 
gray, then pink. Far below, tendrils of mist lingered over the 
jumbled rooftops of the town, where winking lights gradually disap- 
peared. The looming presence of Manengouba Massif rose in a dark 
shadow to the west. 

“Paved, flat, hilly and mountainous” announced the itinerary for 
the ride to Bafang, and though I don’t remember much of it being 
“flat,” the “hilly and mountainous” bits stand out clearly in my 
memory. The hills came one after another, some of the climbs pulling 
me steadily upward for an hour or more at a time. Elsa was to refer 
to it as the “Bafang Death March,” but it was the kind of cycling I 
enjoy — the challenge of the climb, the long struggle upward re- 
warded by the adrenalin-rush of a fast descent. On one of the long- 
est hills the name of a passing minibus gave me more good advice: 
“Don De Patience .” Gift Of Patience. 

Many snakes lay squashed on the road that morning, the largest 
a three-foot length of dry, flat snakeskin. I had yet to see a live 
snake, though Elsa had encountered one the previous day. She told 
us she hadn’t been sure which of them was more frightened, as the 
snake reared up like a cobra on the road in front of her, then slith- 
ered off into the grass. In general, West Africa has fewer snakes 
than one might imagine. The people don’t like them and have been 
killing them off for hundreds of years. Since you don’t often see a 
snake, it’s easy to grow complacent. However, one time in Ghana I 
saw a freshly-killed python, about eight feet long, lying beside the 
road, and from then on I was more careful when I waded into the 
bushes for a pee. 

Things Women Carry On Their Heads, Volume XIV: Big woven 
baskets full of greens, metal basins, plastic tubs and wooden bowls 
full of fruit or cassava roots, burlap sacks bulging with something, 
maybe yams. I even saw a few men for once, toiling along under 
burlap sacks, but strictly the old men. Generally, it was the women 
who carried The Larger Bowl. 


80 



Neil Peart 


We paused for breakfast in the village of Melong — actually 
Melong 1, for there were two of them, signed Melong 1 and Melong 
2. Melong 1 was built along a ridge, just after a wide brown river, 
and a group of men stood by the road selling dry-looking brochettes . 
“Yum,” Leonard said, “Pig guts on a stick!” 

A tinny speaker filled the streets with a bizarre kind of organ 
music, as we found a chophouse and parked our bikes by a urine- 
reeking wall. A middle-aged couple ran the place, the man taking 
our orders and passing them on to his wife, who fried us each an on- 
ion omelette, accompanied by fresh bread and Nescafe. The loud mu- 
sic continued to float and waft on the air. I use those verbs advis- 
edly; it was the strangest music one could ever hear in an African 
village. Through the crackle of distortion and static, an old-time 
Wurlitzer organ warbled through a series of watery melodies. Foot- 
pedal bass and the built-in primitive rhythm box played Latin beats 
to roller-rink standards like “Guantanamera” and 'Yellow Bird.” (I 
think I heard “The Larger Bowl” in there too.) The music and its 
submarine effect were like the soundtrack from Eraserhead, weird 
and incongruous, and Leonard and I snickered as each new melody 
wobbled into life. 

“Where did they get this musicT Leonard wondered aloud. 

“Traditional African folk tunes,” David said, with a deliberate 
poker face. 

This finally “seized” and switched to real African music, just as 
we saddled up again and pedaled into the mid-morning heat. Many 
miles and many hills remained on the “Bafang Death March.” Our 
route followed a main road, and I often glanced up to my helmet- 
mounted mirror to keep an eye on the fast-moving traffic: lots of 
minibuses, big Mercedes trucks, several Mercedes sedans and even 
a couple of limousines. (Africans have a special name for the tribe of 
Mercedes-Benz owners, wabenzi , and in Tbgo, the wealthy market- 
women in the capital city of Lome are called “Nana Benz.”) 

Those steep hills had been as hard on trucks as they were on cy- 
clists, and many broken-down behemoths were parked where they 
had stopped, blocking one side of the road. Stones had been placed 
behind the wheels, and the approaching hazard was signaled in the 
usual West African way, clumps of grass torn from the roadside and 
placed up and down the road in lieu of flares. 

Dangerous corners were identified by the number of mangled 
cars rusting at the roadside, every removable part stripped away. 


81 



The Masked Rider 


Whenever I approached a blind corner and saw three or four aban- 
doned hulks sticking out of the leaves at unnatural angles, I auto- 
matically moved closer to the side of the road, out of the way. The 
previous night at dinner David had explained that many of these 
wrecks occurred at night, when drivers raced at their reckless day- 
time rate, or sped through the blinding rain until they met a fallen 
tree. 

During the midday hours there wasn’t a scrap of shade any- 
where. The benevolent early-morning glitter became a blinding ra- 
diance on the tin roofs. The sticky tar crackled under my wheels and 
sweat streamed down my face, arms, legs, and stomach. My T-shirt 
clung wetly along my back. An occasional hot breeze tossed the palm 
fronds and the roadside grasses, but there was no coolness, no 
evaporating sweat. 

The villages were quiet in the heat. An old man looked up from 
under a tree and greeted me with a smile, “Bonjour papa!” A group 
of idle youths sprawled under an overhanging tin roof, and hissed at 
me as I labored past them. I had experienced the hissing in the Car- 
ibbean before, and knew it wasn’t as rude as it seemed. The long 
sibilant call is directed at friends as well as strangers, an attention- 
getting variation on “Hey!” or “Yo!” These guys were only hissing to 
make me turn around — to make sure I noticed them. (I became so 
used to the hissing that once when I had just returned from West Af- 
rica I was cycling through Tbronto and heard a truck’s air brakes, 
and turned around to see who was calling me.) 

My head-down determination on the climbs put me ahead of the 
others, and a few miles before Bafang I started to look for a place to 
stop and wait. A small open-fronted shack was decorated with soft- 
drink signs, and I pulled off there for a rest and a warm Fanta. 

While I sat on the stoop wiping sweat away with my bandana, a 
family of children played and toddled around the shop, eyeing me 
curiously from their pleasantly dirty faces. The five smaller children 
were watched over by an affectionate older brother of about thir- 
teen, who reprimanded them gently when they became too bold or 
careless. He was kept especially alert by a bossy and brassy five- 
year-old boy, who strutted around commanding and tormenting his 
siblings. Those who didn’t do what he wished got a smack or a kick 
for their resistance. He gave me a cocky smile and a defiant look, 
puffed out his little chest and raised his fists as if to attack me. I 
laughed and called him “Le petit patron the little boss. 


82 



Neil Peart 


One of his sisters I thought of as La serieuse, a sober-faced little 
darling of six or seven who squatted silently in her ragged dress, 
glancing shyly at me and watching the antics of the other children. 
Le petit patron was the most “antic,” of course, as he pulled out his 
penis and ran around waving it at everyone. He was finally cap- 
tured and subdued by the older brother, who made him sit down on 
a stool. That lasted nearly a minute, until the guardian was dis- 
tracted by another toddler who sat chewing up mouthfuls of dirt. 

I went to my bicycle and pulled out a package of mint candies, 
and passed them around to the children. Le petit patron snatched 
one away from me quickly, while La serieuse waited for hers without 
a word or smile or change of expression, then sat with her sad eyes 
fixed on the white candy as if she expected it to disappear. 

You never saw children make candy last so long. No sucking or 
chewing; each of the children held the little mint between a grubby 
thumb and forefinger, only occasionally taking a lick. By this eco- 
nomical method, they made the candies last for fifteen or twenty 
minutes. Except, of course, Le petit patron, who soon devoured his 
own mint, then went looking for one to steal. He chased and tor- 
mented another small boy until the victim broke the remainder of 
his mint in half and split it with the tiny tyrant. It was easy to see 
who had “the larger bowl” here. 

Leonard and Annie rode up and joined me for a warm drink on 
the stoop. Then David and Elsa arrived at last, both looking ex- 
hausted — though each for different reasons. Elsa slumped wearily 
down to lean against the wall, and stayed there while the rest of us 
walked over to a nearby waterfall. 

A footpath led away from the road and into the trees, then to a 
precipice overlooking a deep gorge. I stepped carefully to the brink 
of the rounded cliff, then held firmly onto a tree and looked through 
the leaves. Two streams flowed into one at the top of an eighty-foot 
drop, and a thundering rush of white water cascaded to the bottom. 
Cool air wafted up from the cloud of mist steaming over the round 
pool at the bottom. 

A hand-lettered sign was placed near the waterfall, demanding 
200 francs for looking at la cascade, and 400 for the privilege of pho- 
tographing it. A beer can had been broken in half and set beneath 
the sign to receive our “contributions.” <( Malheur a qui ne paye pas” 
admonished the anonymous collector. Misfortune to whomever does 
not pay. We decided to take our chances. 


83 



The Masked Rider 


Tbgether we pedaled up the last hill into Bafang, welcomed by a 
few young layabouts shouting and hissing at us, then pulled up at a 
small hotel on a back street, Le Grand Hotel Le Paradis . If not quite 
so grand or paradisial as its name, it did have water and electricity 
— and both at the same time. 

It was Leonard’s turn for a single room, while David and I took 
turns washing our laundry in the sink and bidet (men can use them 
too). We hung our dripping clothes on a rope which David had 
strung across the room and back again a dozen times. When the 
room was completely blocked in by dangling T-shirts, shorts, and 
socks, I decided to take a walk through Bafang. 

Music was everywhere as usual, blaring out of the shops from 
tinny megaphone speakers. A record shop had a big pair of cabinets 
on stands in the street, but those impressive-looking speakers had 
been beaten into submission by long abuse, and were limp and dis- 
torted. 

The buildings which lined the main road were two or three 
storeys of cinder-blocks, with a parade of dusty shops on the ground 
floors. Car parts, hardware, bakery, cigarettes, and a sad-looking 
little tailor shop. Many of the upper floors sported breeze-block bal- 
conies with wrought-iron railings, like an echo of New Orleans. 

But try cashing a traveler’s cheque. I entered the bank and 
stood in the “line” {bunch, really) in front of the counter. When I fi- 
nally made my way to the teller and laid the cheque before him, he 
only shook his head. When I asked why he wouldn’t cash it, he lost 
me in a flow of heavily-accented French, and I surrendered. I would 
seek my fortune elsewhere. 

Crossing the street, I stepped carefully over the boards which 
covered the open drains, and entered La Banque National 
Camerounaise . 'This is more like it,’ I thought, seeing a much larger 
business area, and two prominent VISA stickers on the glass around 
the teller’s cages. I stood confidently at the teller’s window and 
handed him a $50 traveler’s cheque and my passport, which he took 
away to an office in the rear. Tb my surprise, he returned shaking 
his head, handed back the cheque and my passport, and turned 
away. When I called him back and pointed at the VISA sticker and 
the matching logo on my traveler’s cheque, he just turned around 
again, not even trying to explain. I continued to protest in stumbling 


84 



Neil Peart 


French — doing a fine imitation of an obnoxious tourist — until he 
called over his superior, who explained to me that they didn’t have 
enough money to cash my cheque. I pointed to the teller in the next 
cage who was counting through a brick-sized wedge of cash, but he 
only shook his head again. 

Shaking my own head by then, I gave up and headed back to the 
hotel. The curse of the waterfall, Malheur a qui ne paye pas. Misfor- 
tune to whomever does not pay. Or is not paid. They wouldn’t cash 
my traveler’s cheque, and now I had no money. Of course I didn’t 
need much, as David paid for the hotels and dinners, but as a rule I 
hate having no money in places with names like Bafang. 

And more misfortune was about to descend upon us. When I got 
back to Le Grand Hotel Le Paradis , Elsa rolled out the Apple of Dis- 
cord ... 


Inevitably, when a group of strangers with very different back- 
grounds and personalities shares a trip under difficult circum- 
stances, friction will arise. In Bafang the conflicts in our disparate 
bunch began to surface. Maybe the dance was getting tougher, and 
the masks were beginning to slip. 

Earlier in the day, when we’d first arrived, we had waited out- 
side the hotel while David negotiated with the manager. As I 
straddled my bike and wiped a bandana across my face, I heard Elsa 
grumbling to Annie about the distances we’d been riding every day 
(though that day’s ride had only been thirty-three miles), and I 
heard her say something about David pushing us too hard. 'Aha,’ I 
thought, 'mutiny already.’ 

Annie listened agreeably with her open-mouth smile, then 
turned to me. "You’ve been on a lot of bicycle tours. Are they usually 
this hard?” 

I had to say that they were usually harder, at least the cycling 
part (I should have added "so far”). But we’d only been averaging 
about thirty miles a day; the longest ride had only been fifty, and all 
the roads had been paved. On my first-ever bike tour, in China, they 
gave us several punishing eighty-mile days in a row, and later when 
I joined tours with friends in Europe or Canada, we usually rode 


85 



The Masked Rider 


seventy or eighty miles a day and some days up to a hundred. And 
that’s in the Alps, the Pyrenees, or the Rockies. It’s axiomatic that if 
you want to see anything, or get anywhere, you’ve got to cover some 
miles. 

Although David had planned for a day-off in Bamenda, which 
was only two days away, I heard Elsa suggest to Annie that instead 
of taking a day-off we should reduce the mileage every day. Just 
then David had emerged from the hotel entrance, and Elsa went si- 
lent. 

Later in the afternoon, when everyone was back from town and 
lounging on the open corridor between the rooms, Elsa announced 
that she wanted to have a meeting. Books were closed and, in the 
case of Leonard, eyes were opened, while Elsa bent forward, her 
sharp features stern and business-like. 

Hesitant at first, not wanting to admit anything like defeat, she 
suggested we split the next day’s ride in half, and, instead of having 
the day free in Bamenda, we could spend more days covering the 
same distance. David spoke up. “Well, we could do that, but I don’t 
know. Once we start messing with the itinerary...” He tailed off, 
wondering how best to be diplomatic, and yet not let his own plans 
slip away. “I think you’ll find that a day off the bikes is the best 
thing you can do — have a good rest for a whole day. Even not hav- 
ing to get up and pack your bags for once makes a nice break. I don’t 
think we should give that up. Bamenda is an interesting town, and 
worth spending some time in. But,” he spread his hands to the 
group of us, “it’s up to you guys. If that’s what everybody wants to 
do, then I guess we can, but...” He shrugged and looked down. 

Annie was the malleable sort who just wanted “everyone to be 
happy,” and she would gladly have gone along with Elsa. Leonard 
was easy-going enough to agree to whatever was decided, so I knew 
they wouldn’t argue too much. My feelings were more complicated, 
and my sympathies more with David than with Elsa. “Personally, I 
don’t want to start riding twenty-five-mile days and miss out on 
things we might have seen, or places we might have gone. And 
David’s right, a day off is a wonderful thing on a bike tour. I don’t 
think we should give that up either.” I turned to Elsa, “Why don’t 
you just take it easy on yourself, swallow your pride, and if one of 
the rides is too much for you, just take the bus like you did the other 
day?” 


86 



Neil Peart 


But she was having none of that. <f Well, that’s not what I really 
want to do. And I don’t speak French, so someone is always going to 
have to arrange it for me. I do okay until the heat gets too much,” 
(David’s eyes met mine), “and I’d rather be able to ride if I can. The 
day I had to take the bus I just wanted to pack it in and go home.” 

I tried to reason with her. 'Well, if you just accept that you can 
stop anytime you want — take the pressure off yourself, and realize 
that if you’re hating it, you can always take the bus. Just keep in 
the back of your mind that if it gets too horrible for you, every mile 
could be your last.” 

I hadn’t meant “every mile could be your last” to sound quite so 
mortal , but there was a chorus of laughter from the others, which at 
least broke the tension. “I don’t know if I like the sound of that,” 
Elsa said dryly. 

David spoke again, “Remember, there’s nothing to prove here, 
Elsa. This is the toughest bike tour on the market, much harder 
than any of the others I lead.” He framed our little group with his 
hands, and said “Look, I could only get four people from all of North 
America even to try it! So it’s not a question of being tough enough 
to pedal every mile. You were tough enough to try. That’s the thing.” 
Facing this resistance, Elsa gave it up, and trailed off with 
“Well, taking the bus is not really what I came here to do, and not 
what I want to do. But I guess I can if I have to.” 

We went back to our rooms until dinner time, then met in the 
hotel restaurant. As the chicken, steak, spaghetti, rice, fried pota- 
toes, greens, and good French bread were being delivered to us, a 
conversation bubbled up and boiled over into a dinner-table debate 
that so engrossed me I hardly tasted the food. 

The discussion began innocently enough, with all of us agreeing 
on our concern for “environmental issues,” not an unusual subject 
for bicyclists to agree on. But if we agreed on the effects , we sure 
didn’t agree on the causes. I found myself battling the amazingly 
widespread notion that some mysterious confederation of power- 
brokers is pulling all the strings, and we are all puppets and vic- 
tims. This conspiracy theory always seems to include the idea, as in- 
deed it must, that everything people do is a result of conditioning ; 
that the whole human race responds to a Pavlovian “mind control” 
which is programmed by the evil tyrants of government and busi- 
ness. So many times I have argued this, and though I’ve never lost 


87 



The Masked Rider 


the debate, I’ve never exactly won either. People seem content to be- 
lieve that a few unnamed manipulators are clever enough to control 
all the other people in the world, who are stupid enough to let them- 
selves be controlled. 

Elsa started it. People only burn fossil fuels, she said, because of 
some unspecified “arrangement” between government and the oil 
companies. “People only drive cars because they ar & forced to.” 

No way a lifelong car-lover could let that lie — my first word 
was “car.” “Wait a minute,” I said, “don’t you think people choose to 
drive cars?” 

“Only because they have no other choice. The government 
doesn’t bother building good mass-transit systems.” 

“Isn’t that because nobody wants to use them?” She shook her 
head, but I went on. “Do you drive a car?” 

She dodged that with “The government doesn’t make trains 
available to me,” and the battle was joined. Leonard, to his credit, 
remained silent through the whole debate, but David and Annie 
aligned themselves with Elsa. 

I dove into the fray. “Surely it’s people themselves that have 
made that choice. People have always preferred the convenience and 
privacy of automobiles, ever since they were first built at prices they 
could afford — the old Model T.” 

I couldn’t imagine anyone could argue with that, but I was met 
with a chorus of dissent. Still I went on fearlessly. “And it’s not like 
gas engines were the only ones offered to the public. There were 
steam and electric cars built right from the beginning, since the 
turn of the century” — and here all those years of interest in cars 
paid off — “the Stanley Steamer, the Baker Electric. In fact, one 
called the Detroit Electric was built right up until World War II. The 
reality is that no one wanted them. The gas engine was more power- 
ful, more convenient, and more efficient.” 

Then David jumped in, c< Well what about solar power and wind 
power? They’ve been around for forty years, but they’ve never been 
properly applied. No research goes into them. The government and 
the oil companies have kept them buried.” 

And Elsa, “Meanwhile they spend all this money on things like 
the Tennessee Valley Authority, and — ” 

I cut her off: “So now there’s something wrong with hydro-elec- 
tric power too?” 


88 



Neil Peart 


“Well no, but...” 

I was getting mad now, and turned back to David’s statement 
about solar and wind power having been “buried.” “That is so obvi- 
ously untrue. Yes, the technology has been around a long time, but 
it’s never been perfected. You must have seen those forests of wind- 
mills out in California? Could they even light up a small town? 

“I had a solar heater for my swimming pool once, thinking it was 
such a great and modern idea, but it didn’t work worth beans. And 
you live in Seattle. How much good is solar power when it rains ev- 
ery second day? Both solar power and wind power are being tried all 
the time, and are even in limited use, but they’re simply not power- 
ful enough. And this idea of 'big business’ as the villains who are 
holding back great ideas — the carburetor that gets a million miles- 
a-gallon, the light bulb that lasts forever, the perpetual motion ma- 
chine — well. 

“How about this? They have a big race in Australia every year 
for solar-powered cars, to see which one can go the farthest and the 
fastest. And who do you think won this year?” 

I answered the shrugs with a defiant “General Motors , for 
heaven’s sake, the biggest car-maker in the world. And there was a 
solar-powered race in Switzerland this year too, and that was won 
by Mercedes-Benz. If these corporations are supposed to be trying 
to suppress these alternate energy sources, why is it they’re at the 
leading edge of the technology?” 

No one stopped me, so I kept going. “If there is money to be 
made on those ideas, those same people will be in there. In the first 
place, I don’t believe businessmen and politicians are smart enough 
to get together and coordinate a giant scam like that, nor could you 
get two of them to agree on anything long enough to make it work. 
And in the second place, I don’t believe people are that stupid.” 

“People are stupid,” Elsa said. My adrenalin boiled, but the oth- 
ers, except Leonard, just murmured their agreement. 

'You really think that?” 

'Yes, people are stupid,” declared Elsa. “Why — ” she gestured 
with her fork. “Well, look at cigarettes. All those American movies 
from the ’thirties and ’forties, everybody puffing away like crazy — 
just tobacco company propaganda. And then all the young people 
thought it looked sharp to smoke.” 


89 



The Masked Rider 


“Then how do you explain China,” I wondered, “the heaviest 
smokers in the world? Or right here in Africa, look how many people 
we’ve seen smoking. Do you think they've seen many black-and- 
white American movies? It just doesn’t wash. Can’t you accept that 
some people actually like to smoke?” 

She was horrified: “Oh no, it’s such a dirty habit. And people 
that smoke smell bad.” 

I was beyond reason now, heart and mind racing ahead of me. 
‘Well, people who eat garlic smell bad too. Smoking is bad for you, of 
course, but lots of things are bad for you. I try not to smoke, and 
you’ve never seen me smoke, but I happen to enjoy it, and if it 
wasn’t bad for me, I would smoke all the time.” 

David jumped in again. “I think smoking looks stupid.” 

And so it went. Elsa introduced themes from her little “Beyond 
War” cards: the responsibility to work for creative solutions; a sin- 
cere search for truth and a spirit of good will; work together with 
others to build a world beyond war; pray or meditate on this thought 
until it becomes reality. She said, “The Russians are ahead of us 
now in disarmament and the search for peace.” 

In vain I protested ... collapsing economy ... political maneuver- 
ing ... budget cuts twisted to save face. I cited the exiled Soviet writ- 
ers, and the too-easily forgotten conditions of life in Russia at that 
time (1988). The few who “got out” told the story for all who cared to 
listen. Not a single voice ever escaped from the Soviet Union to tell 
us all how wonderful it is there. 

How is it that so many people in the West are jaded and cynical 
about their own governments (with good reason, unfortunately), and 
yet are perfectly willing to swallow the “good intentions” of another 
government? Even Soviet Russia, whose history was so ugly, brutal, 
and murderous, and was only then making feeble efforts to crawl 
out from the yoke of collectivism — from what would finally come to 
be accepted as a “discredited ideology,” in the West and in the East. 

After seventy years of glowing support from Western so-called 
“intellectuals,” using their media powers to praise that “noble ex- 
periment” even in the face of Stalinist genocide, the tide had turned, 
at least on the editorial pages and to objective internationalists. But 
not yet for that bitter attitude carried by the Am erica-bashers, so 
many loud citizens of Western Europe, Canada, the Third World, 
and — worst of all — Americans themselves. 


90 



Neil Peart 


David offered his view that the Chinese were leading the world 
in reforesting, cleaning up their environment, and cutting their 
military budget. 

“But — but — but,” I was shell-shocked now. “China?* 

He nodded complacently: “Sure!” 

“But China’s always been proud of pollution. They point to their 
smokestacks with pride, as a sign of their progress and late-bloom- 
ing industrialization. When I was there, only three years ago, the 
rivers were a black solid-waste dump you could almost walk across. 
Reforesting? Northeast China has been deforested for three thou- 
sand years , and with a billion people, every inch of it is under culti- 
vation. There’s just no room to reforest, except maybe the Gobi 
Desert. And cutting their military budget, Goddam! That wouldn’t 
be hard, nearly everybody’s in uniform! All they’d have to do is cre- 
ate some real jobs for their youth, so half of them wouldn’t have to 
be employed by the army? 

He folded his arms. “Doesn’t matter. They’re doing it.” 

I was overwhelmed and outnumbered. The more facts I offered, 
the more I protested that neither the Soviets nor the Chinese were 
doing any better at fixing up the world than we were, the more I 
met with stony resistance. They believed otherwise, and nothing I 
could say was going to modify their opinion that the rest of the 
world was better than their own country, and smarter too. I brought 
back the greatest horror of all, the “people are stupid” outlook, the 
issue I couldn’t accept or let lie. 

“How can you set yourself above the rest of humanity like that? 
Ib say that you’re smart enough to see that everyone else is stupid? 
Don’t you think we all just need to be educated about how to look af- 
ter the world? Don’t you think people are educable?” (I had my 
doubts about that word, “educable,” but Elsa picked it up and ran 
with it.) 

“Oh sure, they’re educable .” 

“So they’re not stupid ; they’re just ignorant?” 

“I guess so, if you want to put it that way.” 

“Well, it makes all the difference. It’s the difference between 
hope and hopeless, don’t you think?” 

“I suppose,” she said reluctantly. 

Leonard added some much-needed humor at last. 'Yeah, well, 
what about the CIA selling drugs in our schoolyards?” 


91 



The Masked Rider 


And Annie came in as conciliator. “The important thing is that 
we all care about these things, right?” 

So the Great Debate was allowed to subside, as we pushed back 
our plates and rose from the table. But I was still all worked-up in- 
side by this intellectual exercise, and it kept me awake for hours. 

The worst result of the day’s disagreements would be that a se- 
ries of wedges had been driven into the fragile unity of our little 
group. Less than a week had passed, and we had only begun to forge 
some kind of working relationship, but after this day of open discord 
we would each retire into a wary solitude. Polite, civil, and not 
openly tense or hostile, but still — the possibility of something more 
was gone. 

On every other occasion when I’d thrown myself into a group of 
strangers like that, cycling in China, camping in Tanzania, or climb- 
ing Mount Kilimanjaro, I had forged new bonds with former strang- 
ers, had made enduring friendships that sometimes, as in the case of 
friends made in China, had led to sharing other travels together. 
Difficult times and the state of being apart from one’s “context” 
make fertile ground for intimacy and trust, and a warm relationship 
with another person can develop quickly and completely. But that 
would never happen on this trip; I knew it already. I was sad to see 
that “window of opportunity” closed. 

Leonard would always be friendly and funny, always warm and 
always cool, and because of his easy-going equanimity he would be- 
come a kind of anchor for us all. I would always feel comfortable 
with him, and enjoy his company and his humor, but we were both 
too reserved. Two shells take longer to crack than one. For me, it is 
easier to respond to my opposite, the gregarious type. 

Between David and me — well, there had always been a thread 
of tension. We seemed to coexist on a fine line of mutual respect, and 
a shared passion for cycling and interest in the world, but the ways 
in which we were alike (our stubbornness, our healthy sense of self- 
esteem, our independence) worked against us, and we would main- 
tain a wary distance. I would always be happy to travel with him, 
but we would always travel apart. 

Annie, ah, Annie. We were so very different, and yet she was the 
classic “good heart.” Even when she was most exasperating, you had 
to love her. 

But between Elsa and me, the Cold War had begun. 


92 









spipkaisy at vss 


We gathered in front of Le Grand Hotel Le Paradis in the haze 
of first light. It had been another of those “Quiet Nights In 
Cameroon.” Music raged from the downstairs bar until the small 
hours, when the action continued in the nearby streets. People 
shouted and laughed, engines revved, tires squealed, radios blared. 
But all was silent now, and fog sprawled over Bafang as we pedaled 
down the main street. A few figures moved in the shadows, a few 
hisses, a few hollow shouts. 

Annie was pale and silent, and I heard Elsa tell David that her 
room-mate had been up many times through the night. Annie’s turn 
for Third World stomach distress. She said nothing about it herself, 
no complainer our Annie, but as we got rolling I rode up beside her 
and offered my sympathy. She shook her head weakly and muttered: 
“Oh, um, it isn’t so bad.” But I knew it was. 

The fog lifted with the sun, and soon I was sweating and gasp- 
ing my way into the hills, moving ahead of the others with the pre- 
vious evening’s debates still rattling around in my head. The day’s 
route would take us north, over a succession of long, steep hills and 
up into a region called the High Plateau, the country of the 
Bamileke people. Their dwellings were distinguished by pyramid- 
shaped roofs, always in sets of two or four. In former days these 
decorative roofs had been thatched, but now they gleamed in shiny 
metal, scattered like silver tents among the furrowed green hills. 

David caught up with me, taking a rare break from his dutiful 
escort of Elsa, and together we pedaled at a good pace up, around, 
and down the hills, then stopped at a small eating-house in the vil- 
lage of Bandja. While David arranged for some food, I sat on the 
ground in the sun and watched for the others. 




95 




The Masked Rider 


A young white girl walked purposefully along the tree-shaded 
village street. Tall and slender, with long dark hair, she wore a blue- 
flowered dress, and carried a book under her arm. I wondered what 
a girl so young was doing in such an unlikely place, and certainly 
not dressed for traveling. From behind me I heard David call out, 
“Hey Peace Corps!” The girl, startled, turned and walked over to us. 

As David had surmised, as a Peace Corps veteran himself, she 
was the local volunteer, and taught in the village school. She had 
just begun her two-year stint, and was finding it a little lonely and 
difficult, but she was “getting along all right.” From TV commercials 
and magazine ads, I had always thought of the Peace Corps as a 
bunch of kids working together in some exotic place, a kind of “sum- 
mer camp” atmosphere of adventure and camaraderie. But here was 
the reality. A college graduate barely out of her ’teens, stuck alone in 
a remote place for two long years, the only American, the only white 
person, for many miles. She couldn’t have known what she was in 
for when she signed up at her Midwestern college. She seemed so 
young, so fragile, her dark eyes veiled and defensive, her chin a 
little high and forward as if to defy her surroundings and her own 
vulnerability. After a few minutes of diffident conversation, the 
Peace Corps girl gave us a shy smile and said, “Well, I must get to 
school. Have a good trip,” and turned and walked off down the road. 
As we watched her go, I said to David, “She seems so young.” 

“Just out of college, nineteen or twenty.” 

“Such a remote place, it must be a hard life for her. Tfell me, do 
many of them give it up before their two years are up?” 

“No, I don’t think so. Most of the ones I knew stuck it out.” 
“Hmm,” I nodded. They had my respect. 

Another omelette and Nescafe, and back to the hills. David had 
chosen to stop in Bandja because he knew the really big hills began 
right after it, a series of long climbs to the High Plateau. As I fol- 
lowed the winding road up through the village, passing the children 
on their way to school, a line of them fell in behind me, until about 
twenty had joined the procession, laughing and chattering in my 
wake. As I stood on the pedals, cranking slowly up the steep hill, I 
glanced over my shoulder and smiled through clenched teeth at 
their beautiful faces and innocent joy, glad to have them with me. 


96 



Neil Peart 


Suddenly there was a stern voice from the roadside, and a fat 
policeman in a brown uniform and red beret stepped in front of me 
and held up his hand. My smile faded and I unwillingly came to a 
halt, losing the momentum of the climb. For no reason I could see, 
the obese officer started shouting at the children and chasing them 
away, waving his arms and making runs at them, like shooing chick- 
ens. Then he turned to me, and gruffly demanded my Carte 
d’identitee. 

I produced my passport, and he turned the pages and stared at 
them dumbly for a minute. While he frowned in concentration I 
looked him over. The enameled badge on his barrel chest was red, 
yellow and green like the flag, his bulging stomach strained the but- 
tons of his brown shirt, and he carried a gun in a worn leather hol- 
ster. I wondered why this fat, surly policeman, like the head-smack- 
ing teacher in Manjo and my own Miss Jenner, had become so irate 
at the children for simply having fun. What was his real problem? 

“Oil est le nom ?” he demanded, and I showed him where my 
name was, even though, being a Canadian passport, all the informa- 
tion was indicated in both English and French. So my corpulent in- 
terrogator couldn’t read. “Oil est le numero?” I showed him the num- 
ber. He pulled out a scrap of paper and a pencil stub, and slowly, la- 
boriously, copied down my name and number, and handed my pass- 
port back. As I slipped my foot into the toestrap and prepared to 
push off again, I watched him plod morosely down the road, ready to 
darken someone else’s day. 

As I continued the low-gear battle against gravity, I was grateful 
for the mercy of the overcast sky, but it was still plenty warm. Be- 
side the road, scattered people tended their plots of coffee and 
beans, some calling out greetings as I sweated by and waved. A fat 
woman rippled all over as she walked heavily down the hill toward 
me, wearing one of the loose dresses with the heraldic design. This 
one featuring the pope’s face rather than the distinguished visage of 
President Paul Biya. I wished her a “bonjour” A young boy mur- 
mured “du courage!” as I climbed past him, and I smiled and said 
“merci” An incoherent stream of yelling came from above me, and I 
looked up to see an old man sitting on his porch, holding a jar of 
creamy-white palm wine at a careless angle while he berated the 


97 



The Masked Rider 


world at large. Out of his mind at eleven in the morning. 'Good 
idea/ I thought as I blew the sweat off my nose, T should join him.’ 
Occasional villages grew up beside the highway, each with a 
small market at its heart, and I began to notice that not all of these 
villages were friendly. In some of them the people seemed surly, and 
either ignored me or muttered something in my direction, without 
smiling. Instead of cries of "Welcome!” “Bonjour!” or “Salut!” I heard 
guttural calls of "White Man!!” or " Homme Blanc! !” Young guys 
lounging by the road yelled phrases that I couldn’t make out, though 
one I heard a few times seemed to end with “mon cul” — my ass — 
and probably wasn’t friendly or welcoming. 

But, the next village would be friendly again. "Welcome!” 
“Bonjour!” “Salut!” Most of the places we had visited had been 
friendly; yet there was Kumba. David had told me of another town 
he stopped at during his last trip, called Bafia, where the people had 
been so unpleasant that he would never go back. 

All of the villages were equally poor, and the people descended 
from the same tribes, so the difference must run deeper. Maybe 
sometime in the past there had been a chief, or a succession of 
chiefs, who were grasping, insensitive, suspicious, or simply rude. 
They would deal with their people in that fashion, and whether or 
not the people emulated the chief’s attitudes, they would be forced 
to emulate his behavior. The chief’s world-view, however twisted, 
would become the example, and soon the way the villagers treated 
each other. And if the men dealt with their neighbors by dishonesty 
or suspicion, so too would the women on market day, and the sons 
and daughters after them. It would become the manner in which 
people related to one another, defensive and cynical and me-against- 
the-world, and before long the whole village would function by that 
modus vivendi. (There’s even an international parallel there.) The 
opposite would also apply, in the ripples radiating from a chief who 
was confident and personable, who treated his people fairly and 
with affection. His village would have time for friendliness, and 
room for self-respect. 

Could hell be a place where there is no self-respect? A place 
where people have no pride in their own existence or behavior, and 
thus would have none for anyone br anything else? Was that what 


98 



Neil Peart 


had made Kumba so unnerving? The town so slovenly and repellent 
— not because of poverty, but because the people didn’t seem to care 
if they dumped garbage in the streets, if they were rude and un- 
pleasant, if the ditches reeked, if the roads and buildings were fall- 
ing apart. That sign in the hotel room about showing respect for 
yourself and others, that was a great way to ask people to behave 
themselves. Aristotle would have liked that. 


After one climb had pulled me upward for more than an hour, I 
pedaled gratefully along a ridge, catching my breath and a drink of 
water. Then I looked ahead and made a face at the hated sign, the 
red circle with white outline and a horizontal black bar reading 
“HALTE GENDARMERIES.” Another roadblock, and once again the 
friendliness of the local people was displaced by the menace of 
armed authority. A few guys with guns can spoil everything. 

And at that moment, out of nowhere, the origin of the word gen- 
darmes came to me. Gens d’armes translates freely as “guys with 
guns.” I like those sudden flashes of understanding, like the time in 
France when I was pedaling by a county line and noticed that the 
word for county, comte, was like the word for count, comte. Then I 
saw the connection. A comte rules over a comte, just as a count rules 
over a county. An interesting thing to know, simple, neat, and, like 
so many facts, useless. Like guys with guns. 

The barricade was a long stick laid across a metal barrel to block 
half the road. Three soldiers sat around a languid spiral of smoke 
beneath a shelter of woven palm-fronds. Spying me, one of the sol- 
diers hauled himself up and waved me down. Holding out his hand 
for my papers, he demanded to know where I was coming from and 
where I was going. While I straddled the bike and sourly watched 
him leaf through my passport, I noticed that most of the buses and 
cars continued around the barricade without pause. Only occasion- 
ally did one of the other soldiers heave himself to his feet to wave a 
vehicle over. One who hadn’t paid his “dash,” I guessed. 

In front of a small shop across the road, three dead rats hung 
from a pole by their necks, bloated gray bodies and mouths gaping 


99 



The Masked Rider 


with pointed teeth. I wondered if they were an exterminator’s tro- 
phies, or the makings of rat stew (“bush meat,” the locals would call 
it). The soldier finished grunting .out his questions, then frowned 
deeper and nodded once as he handed back my passport. 

The road curved down from the plateau, winding around in a 
long descent and bringing me out into a valley beneath a suddenly 
open sky. All at once the two-lane blacktop became a modern four- 
lane expressway, and I stared around in amazement like a character 
in The Twilight Zone. Neatly painted white and yellow lines divided 
the perfect ribbons of asphalt; signposts with international symbols 
indicated speed, curves, merging and yielding traffic; and a brand- 
new overpass and cloverleaf interchange served another highway 
above it. Ahead I saw a Mobil service station, brand-new, starkly 
modern, and yet deserted. On the other side of the empty express- 
way sat its twin, a cubicle of glazed brick with four shiny white gas 
pumps bearing the red Mobil Pegasus. 

Then, the “expressway to nowhere” came to an abrupt end. A 
sign gave the symbol for “narrowing road,” and my wheels rolled 
back onto the simple two-lane blacktop I’d been climbing up and 
coasting down all morning. 

It was all very splendid — but what was it fori There was no 
town in sight, no sudden crush of traffic, no reason for this incon- 
gruous little section of superhighway. A piece of misguided foreign 
aid? A monstrous error by the highway engineers? Like, all this was 
supposed to have been built somewhere else? A prestigious “decora- 
tion” to impress visitors on their way to Bafoussam? Probably all of 
the above. 

The map of West Africa is dotted with bizarre monuments of that 
nature, and Ghana is a perfect example. In 1957 Ghana became the 
first black African country to win independence, and Britain left the 
new nation with half a billion dollars in foreign exchange reserves. 
The new government launched itself into nationhood by decorating 
the capital city of Accra with a conference centre for sixteen million 
dollars, a drydock for seventeen million, a state house for eight mil- 
lion, a huge monument in Black Star Square for two million, and a 
showcase superhighway, like this one in Cameroon, which was 
twenty-three kilometers long, under-used, and cost nine million 
bucks. In less than ten years, Ghana found itself a billion dollars in 


100 



Neil Peart 


debt, and entered a long, dismal period of decline from which it is 
only now beginning to emerge. 

In contrast, the Ivory Coast, Ghana’s neighbor, was the great 
success story of West Africa. Instead of kicking out all the Europe- 
ans, as most African countries did at independence, the Ivory Coast, 
like Kenya in East Africa, invited them to stay and help get the new 
country rolling. Thus those two countries, though not without prob- 
lems of their own, had truly become “developing nations” rather 
than surviving on the handouts of foreign aid. Some Africans, how- 
ever, explain it a different way. 

One night in Ghana I fell into conversation with a young Ghana- 
ian, and he was telling me of his concern about Poland and Eastern 
Europe. Well, not concern about them; he was worried that Ameri- 
can aid money would all be going there, and not to Africa. I asked if 
he didn’t think we should help them too, and he said: “No. You have 
to support Africa.” 

“Support Africa?” I asked, intrigued by the choice of word. 

“Yes, you owe it to us!” When I asked him why, he explained, 
“Because of the terrible things that happened.” Then followed a dis- 
cussion of why it was America's responsibility to make up to Afri- 
cans for the scourge of slavery, when it had been Africans who 
started the slave trade, first selling their people north across the Sa- 
hara to the Arabs, then south to the coast and the Europeans — 
who, after all, had been the ones to carry the slave trade overseas. 
There hadn’t even been an America then. The Portuguese had first 
brought African slaves to the New World; why wasn’t my Ghanaian 
friend concerned about their aid? Et cetera. Then when I mentioned 
that billions of dollars in aid money had been coming to Africa for 
thirty years, he sneered and said, “Oh yes, to Kenya and Ivory 
Coast,” as if their success was only attributable to receiving more 
handouts. He finally admitted that Ghana had received a lot of 
money, “but we’ve had a radical government, and none of it’s done 
any good.” Tb which I replied, “If none of the money has done any 
good, how will you know the difference if it starts going to Poland or 
East Germany?” 

But get these politics out of here. None of that stuff is what 
makes Africa so special to me; it’s the people. As I left that strange 
bit of superhighway behind me, my whole morning was altered, di- 


101 



The Masked Rider 


vided into before and after, by a five-year-old girl in a yellow-flow- 
ered pagne and kerchief. As I pedaled by her, grumpy and fed up 
with everything, she turned to me, all dark eyes and shy smile, and 
said the softest little “bonjour m’sieur. ” That’s all she gave me, this 
tiny angel, but all at once I was transformed. I forgot about the 
heat, the hills, guys with guns, and African politics, and pedaled on 
with a glow. 

A few miles before Bafoussam I pulled off the road and parked 
my bike against a big shady tree. Pulling off my helmet and gloves, I 
wiped my sweat-sticky face and arms with a bandana, and sat back 
against a stone wall. Water bottle beside me, I took out the Ethics. 
Maybe I couldn’t use Aristotle’s clear reasoning to understand a 
stretch of superhighway in the middle of the African bush, but I was 
getting some insight on the Doctrine of the Mean — called the 
“Golden Mean” by everybody but Aristotle. 

Philosophy can be scary stuff, but sometimes, like comte and 
comte, or gendarmes , it can be simple and clear if you just look at it 
right. Unfortunately, like African politics or the Bible, people can 
twist it around to suit their point of view. The Doctrine of the Mean 
states that moral virtue lies in the middle between two extremes, 
courage between cowardice and rashness, generosity between mean- 
ness and prodigality. Clear enough. But so often the idea of this 
Golden Mean has been corrupted, and used as a plea for moderation, 
for mediocrity, for temperance. Benjamin Franklin said “all things in 
moderation.” Did he mean eat, drink, do anything you want, but be 
moderate about it? Like say, shooting heroin? 

Aristotle makes this distinction clear. But the rule of choosing 
the mean cannot be applied to some actions or feelings, which are es- 
sentially evil. Under this heading he includes murder, adultery, and 
theft. I’m sure he would have put heroin in there, and probably guys 
with guns too. Later moralizers have corrupted this concept to their 
own purposes, and I was pleased to find in the introduction to the 
Ethics that other philosophers besides Voltaire and Nietzsche have a 
sense of humor. The writer of the introduction addresses the self-ap- 
pointed “fun police” thus: 


102 



Neil Peart 


If the Doctrine urges us not to drink too much 
wine, it equally urges us not to drink too little — that 
is something which the moralizers usually find it pru- 
dent to ignore. 


And moralizers were the order of the day for me. Once we 
regrouped and cycled together through the busy town of Bafoussam, 
past another three police and army roadblocks, we were into the 
country again, and on our way to spend the night at a monastery. 


MoNaSTeRe 

MONASTERE 
SAINT BENOIT 
BABETE 

1,5 Km 


said the little handmade sign where a rutted lane led into the trees. 
We pedaled along the track for a mile or so, then emerged into a 
wide clearing. Ahead of us was a long, low building with varnished 
wood doors and louvred-glass windows, and to our left was a new 
church, three storeys tall and mustard-colored, surrounded by bare 
earth, heaps of stone and dirt, and bits of construction equipment. 
The new reddish-brown metal roof seemed out of place against the 
ancient forest behind it. 

We dismounted, and David pulled on his long trousers and went 
inside. He came out accompanied by a tiny nun, perhaps seventy 
years old, in gray and white habit. She gave us all a grandmotherly 
smile, her wrinkled face kind and sort of blessing us, as she greeted 
us in French. David and I did our best to answer her questions 
about our journey. We stood, stiffly respectful, by an arch of woven 
branches and wild flowers over the doorway. The Sister told us that 
the Mother Superior would be returning that evening from a visit to 
Switzerland, and the arch had been erected by the Sisters to wel- 


103 



The Masked Rider 


come her back. Not, she said with a twinkle, to welcome bicycle rid- 
ers. 

She led us back along the lane to an enclosure of other build- 
ings, three plywood-paneled rooms containing rows of iron beds. On 
each bed was a pillow and a home-made blanket, the loosely-woven 
“afghan” type that generations of grandmothers have sat knitting by 
the fire, or, these days, by the TV. I remembered my own grand- 
mother turning out dozens of them, for her beloved United Church 
to send to “missions in Africa,” and I smiled at the irony — me, the 
impious one who made a point of donating only to secular charities, 
on the receiving end of missionary aid. 

We had the whole dormitory to ourselves, and we each chose our 
beds in scattered corners, with empty beds beside us on which to 
spread our gear. At the far end a communal bathroom was a wel- 
come sight, a row of shower stalls and two toilet cubicles, one west- 
ern-style, the other in the eastern mode (a porcelain pan at floor 
level, with rough tiles on either side for good footing while you 
squatted over it). Talk and laughter echoed between the shower 
stalls as we washed away the dirt of the road. 

The Sister had told us that Vespers would be held at 5:00, and 
we were welcome to attend. I was eager to experience this unknown 
ritual, with such a beautiful name. Vespers, like a soft, musical 
whisper. After a quick shower (a cold shower always seems to be 
quick), I changed into long trousers and my one “respectable” shirt, 
and walked quickly up the lane. Annie came running up behind, and 
together we crossed the churned-up dirt around the new church. 
Just then a line of gray-and-white nuns emerged from the main 
building, like an illustration in a children’s book. Annie and I 
searched along the portico, but could find no open door, so I sug- 
gested we look around back where the Sisters had gone. 

The door was unlocked, and I entered the hallway warily, Annie 
just behind. We tiptoed and whispered, wondering which way to go, 
when all at once the singing began, a gentle chord of echoing voices. 
I found another door, and whispered to Annie that it was unlocked, 
asking if she thought I ought to try it. She nodded, and I turned the 
knob, the two of us crowding up to the opening in curiosity. 


104 



Neil Peart 


The eyes of the old Sister went straight into mine as I found my- 
self facing the line of nuns, all of them singing in adoration with 
their hands outstretched — toward us. I stood frozen for a moment, 
feeling like a fool, as I realized we were behind the altar. For all I 
knew of Catholicism, we might have been committing a grave blas- 
phemy. Red-faced, I closed the door, and we walked outside again to 
find a side door had been opened. 

I made myself as small as I could and slipped into the umber-col- 
ored interior, Annie and I each taking one of the bamboo benches 
which served as pews. The afternoon light was filtered through nar- 
row arched windows, and tinted by a large stained-glass window be- 
hind the altar. The Sisters faced the image of Jesus, the central fig- 
ure in the square of colored light, which was designed in a proto- 
Cubist (i.e. African) style. The seated Jesus, with cross-racial fea- 
tures, was bracketed by a pair of colorful saints, a chorus of angels, 
and the words “Alpha” and “Omega,” the Beginning and the End. 

As the singing continued, our other three cyclists tiptoed in, and 
the old Sister who had welcomed us stooped back to where we sat, 
handing us each a copy of the Vespers service. I opened it to 
Vendredi, Wednesday, and saw that they were singing Psalm 102, a 
lonely prayer for mercy in the wilderness. 

The voices of the six nuns reverberated around the walls of the 
cavernous interior, accompanied by the gently strummed guitar of a 
young African Sister in the same gray habit and white headdress. 
Four novices in bright pagnes and kerchiefs sang, like the others, 
with their hands out to their sides. The priest sat back a few rows, 
bowing his white-tonsured head as he rounded out the sopranos 
with the low organ notes of his voice. The high and low voices sing- 
ing in delicate French and the ringing sustain of the guitar were en- 
hanced by the returning echoes in the vast church. I felt the music 
resonate within me — my eyes, my throat, the pit of my stomach. It 
was mostly the music, but it was also partly a spiritual response to 
the simple faith in this worship. 

As they sang the second and third Psalms, I divined a kind of 
rhythm to the ritual. They began seated, intoning a soft hymn of 
praise, then at intervals they rose in unison, standing in a half-bow 


105 



The Masked Rider 


and singing with more feeling, their hands cupped before them in a 
poignant gesture of supplication. Then they stood straight, hands 
wide and voices raised in a gentle crescendo of adoration which left 
me profoundly moved. The voices rose and fell in shimmering waves, 
a fragile melody that seemed so elusive, and yet would haunt me 
forever. 

'Epiphany/ I thought with a little smile, 'religion has come to me 
at last. I didn’t think it would happen in Africa — and I didn’t think 
it would be Catholicism.’ Growing up in a nominally Protestant 
home, with my grandmother’s austere Puritanism serving as a 
model of religion, I had tended to see Catholics, in the most innocent 
and even admiring way, simply as "Them.” I didn’t really under- 
stand what it was about. We all lived in the same neighborhood, and 
even played on the street together, but everything else seemed to be 
so separate. Even their schools were called Separate Schools. For 
some reason I couldn’t fathom, they seemed to be "special,” these 
Catholics, so I took this to be true, that they were somehow set 
apart. 

Every day on my way to school I passed the Star Of The Sea, the 
school where the Catholic kids went, and saw them all playing be- 
hind the chainlink fence. This gave me a strange sense of isolation 
and puzzled wonder, as if there was something denied me. They had 
to have a separate school from "us,” even a separate high school, and 
their church was so much grander and more ornate than the simple 
brick Protestant churches in my little town, and this too would 
naturally appeal to a child. 

I was impressed, and a little bit in awe, but then I grew up, 
learned a little history and current events, and realized the 
"specialness” was entirely the old illusion of possessing the exclusive 
Truth — an illusion shared by all other religions. Wars, Inquisitions, 
Northern Ireland, pedophile priests — these, I learned, were the 
other side of the Star Of The Sea’s small-town grandeur, and the 
other side of this touching and innocent Vespers service in the hills 
of Africa. 

Epiphany now? Epiphany her el Not really. Just when I thought 
I had it, it was gone. 

I’ve always thought I’d like to make a collection of Epiphany and 
Apostasy stories I’ve heard, how different people have adopted or re- 


106 



Neil Peart 


jected religion in their lives. For example, the father of a friend of 
mine came to Canada from Eastern Europe after World War II, ac- 
companied by hope, a multi-syllabic name, and his young bride. 
Both of them had been brought up as Eastern Orthodox Catholics, 
and carried their beliefs with them to a new country. His wife was 
stricken by disease soon after their arrival, and died, leaving my 
friend’s father wretched with pain at this meaningless loss, and he 
rejected his religion forever. "A God who could do this to me is not 
my God.” 

My brother Danny feels that the greatest sadness in life is to 
lose a beloved mate; but he has no children. It seems to me that the 
deepest, most cruel sorrow must be a mother losing her child. No 
bonds can be tighter, or more painfully broken. As a boy I once saw a 
photograph of a Vietnamese mother holding her dead baby and wail- 
ing. This seemed to represent the greatest of human suffering, and I 
have never forgotten that image. And yet all the platitudes that are 
trotted out, “that’s the way God planned it;” “God has called her to 
Him;” “she has found a better life.” How does a mother lose her in- 
nocent child, and still keep her faith in such a cruel deity? And yet 
they do. 

I don’t remember ever really believing in religion. As a child I 
was merely ambivalent. Every Sunday morning we were sent off to 
Sunday School, pulling on the itchy gray pants, clipping on the fake 
tie, polishing the clunky Oxfords, putting on the hand-me-down 
jacket that smelled of my grandfather’s cigars. And I remember sit- 
ting there in the United Church basement looking at the portrait of 
Jesus (long hair, soft beard, limpid eyes, all in sepia tones) as I 
mouthed the words to “Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam” and won- 
dered, ‘Does He really?’ 

One day while my friend Rick and I walked along Main Street 
he told me about a book he’d found called The Passover Plot. He said 
this book claimed that all Christianity was a big lie designed to con- 
trol people. Being an adolescent, I was impressed — my very first 
conspiracy theory. It’s in a book, after all, and when you’re young 
and impressionable those kind of things carry weight, just as one be- 
comes enamored of “ancient astronauts” and “unexplained myster- 
ies.” However, it was then that I first dared to disbelieve. I had 
learned that somebody else did, so maybe it was all right. 


107 



The Masked Rider 


I was fifteen in 1967, and was allowed to paint the ceiling of my 
bedroom with the graffiti of the day, “Flower Power,” peace symbols, 
LOVE. In the corner, without thinking anything of it, I sprayed an- 
other current catch-phrase of the time, “God Is Dead” (all unaware 
of its Nietzschean origin). My father was outraged, not surprisingly, 
and demanded that I take it off. My mother said, “your grandmother 
would flop over dead if she saw that.” So demonstrating my continu- 
ing ambivalence, with a few strokes of the aerosol can I changed it 
to “God Isn't Dead,” and everyone was happy. I didn’t really care one 
way or the other. 

But there was still another Epiphany for me. At around the 
same age I remember going to a hockey game at the arena, and as I 
walked among the seats I was thinking, like a typical fifteen-year- 
old, about sex. All at once my mind was overwhelmed by the intri- 
cate pattern of human sexuality: arousal, male and female anatomy 
and their responses to each other, the great mystery of reproduction, 
and with a blinding flash it all seemed too complex to be accidental. 
There had to be a great Mind behind it all. This is known as the “ar- 
gument by design,” I believe, but it left me confused and wondering 
for a long time afterward. Until now, in fact. 

Sure, I still wonder. As infuriating and senseless as organized 
religion seems, and with all the abuses of the evangelists and fanat- 
ics, I am still intrigued by the romance, the ritual, and the security 
of a Higher Power. Like most everyone, I’d like to believe in some- 
thing larger than life, especially for those times when life seems 
small and mean. But, after I’ve admired the poetry of the King 
James Bible, appreciated the peaceful wisdom of Buddhism, recoiled 
from a vengeful Allah or God, wondered about the secret societies of 
Freemasons and Illuminati, in the end I return to reality, and be- 
lieve in Life. And that seems good to me. 

I can worship Nature, and that fulfills my need for miracles and 
beauty. Art gives a spiritual depth to existence — I can find worlds 
bigger and deeper than my own in music, paintings, and books. And 
from my friends and family I receive the highest benediction, emo- 
tional contact and personal affirmation. I can bow before the works 
of Man, from buildings to babies, and that fulfills my need for won- 
der. I can believe in the sanctity of Life, and that becomes the Re- 


705 



Neil Peart 


vealed Word, to live my life as I believe it should be, not as I’m told 
to by self-appointed guides. 

There are holy virtues too in this Life-worship: artistry, integ- 
rity, love, ideas, and discovery. Yes, even laughter. And no other sys- 
tem permits the one instinctive first cause: your own existence. 
You’ll never be asked to die for Life. At least not for a while. 


109 




Carvings 

Fon’s Palace, Bafut. 


110 



fls missionary position 



Back at the dormitory I found David talking with two German 
missionaries, part of a group of Lutherans from all over Cameroon 
who were meeting at the monastery. I’d thought it strange that they 
were guests of the Catholics and yet took no part in their services, 
but I was, of course, naive to the politics of religion. 

One of the missionaries was tall, bald with a fringe of gray, a shy 
smile, and a kindly twinkle behind his glasses. The other was short 
and wide, with a heavy beard and a crooked blade of a nose, and 
dressed in a pajama-like costume of blue cotton pants and shirt, in a 
sort of tie-dyed print (gone “native”). Both spoke fair English, 
though heavily accented, and were interested in our travels. “Vere 
haff you been zo far?” “Ah, I zee. Und zo — vere are you goink nixt?” 

The short bearded one, whose square build made me think 
“dwarf,” worked in Buea, while the tall gray-fringed one had a mis- 
sion in a remote part of the Northwest, where no roads at all were 
shown on the map. He told me that their German Lutheran Church 
had taken over the work of the old Basel Mission, and a few things 
I’d read in A History Of The Cameroon clicked into place. 


Under German rule at the turn of the century, the Basel Mission 
had become the most important missionary group among all the 
churches who had already divided up the country like conquering 
armies. British Baptists, American Presbyterians, German Catho- 
lics, Paris Evangelicals; they had all staked out their “turf,” like 
warring gangs. In 1886, the “rights” to part of the country — the 
“soul futures” — were actually sold by the Baptists. The Basel Mis- 
sion picked up those “options,” and also took up trading with the Af- 
ricans (to finance the more seemly business of harvesting souls). 


ill 




The Masked Rider 


The Basel Mission had been a fairly benevolent force in 
Cameroon, often defending the native people in disputes, continuing 
to educate them even against Germany’s wishes, and fighting for 
fair treatment of the workers by the plantation owners. By the time 
World War I turned everything upside-down, the Basel Mission had 
established 631 mission schools, teaching 40,000 people, and thus 
could be seen as one of the positive aspects of colonial rule. 


The dwarfish German seemed interested in cycling, and took 
one of David’s Bicycle Africa newsletters, saying that he’d like to go 
on a tour like ours. Then he asked how old Elsa was, and when 
David told him, he wrinkled his forehead with doubt, and his re- 
sponse was surprising. “You must haff to vait for her often,” he 
shook his head regretfully. “Zere must be a lot of vaiting.” 

Everyone else we met remarked how great it was that Elsa was 
doing this thing, or that we were all doing it together , while to the 
Cameroonians it was positively miraculous that a sixty-year-old 
woman could even ride a bicycle. But this good Christian was only 
concerned that we might be held up by having to wait for a weaker 
rider (a basic Christian metaphor, no?) and this possibility obviously 
darkened his whole view of the affair. 

Missionaries are hard people to figure. Some of them are unde- 
niably doing great things, like the American doctor in Togo with his 
makeshift hospital, and one has to admire them. But not all mission- 
aries are so active in actually helping people. Some of them consider 
“saving souls” to be more important than saving lives. People be- 
come missionaries because of their religion, and their “mission” is to 
spread the word of God. That’s really what it’s about. If all they 
wanted to do was help people who need it, there are plenty of secu- 
lar organizations who would welcome them as volunteers. What 
people in West Africa and throughout the Third World need is clean 
water — that can save more lives than anything. But missionaries 
don’t come to a village and dig a well; they build a church (or bribe 
the locals to do it). 

And if these missionaries like to call themselves “teachers,” too 
often that means they teach religion , period. That is their mission, 
though they often dress it up to look more humanistic. The West Af- 
rican capitals are dotted with offices called “International Institute 


112 



Neil Peart 


of Languages,” or variations on schools of "Linguistics,” or "Lit- 
eracy,” and they’re all run by the churches. Not to teach literacy , but 
to teach the Bible. 

The Pope himself came to Africa with a message against birth 
control and Western civilization: "Birth control programs carry a 
powerful anti-life mentality. They suppress the African people’s 
healthy love of children. You must beware of the streak of crass 
Western materialism in development.” 

Yes, crass Western materialism will encourage these struggling 
people not to bring more children into a hungry family. Those who 
have actually looked at those faces can only agree. One Catholic 
missionary in Cameroon advised the women of her village to use 
birth control, explaining to them, "the Pope might not like it, but I 
don’t think God will mind.” 

All dogma aside, it is nakedly humane and truly compassionate 
not to want people to suffer, whether or not someone says it is "God’s 
will.” That must be the simplest of truths, the kind that can only be 
contested by people who place dogma above life, and those are the 
people, whether communist, fascist, Muslim, or Catholic, who must 
represent the enemy to those of us who worship Life as the supreme 
good, and the supreme god. Or to those who just want to enjoy it. 


In the cool evening we walked up to the the monastery and 
found the refectory, a large dining room containing a dozen round 
tables and chairs. One of the tables had been set for five, so we sat 
down at it, just as the Lutherans began to arrive. About ten children 
came bouncing and yelling into the room, followed by six women, 
then lastly by the two men, all of them taking their places around 
three tables. The adults’ faces all reminded me of Baader-Meinhof 
Terroristen posters in Frankfurt airport. 

A woman who seemed to be the taller missionary’s wife, a sad- 
faced, wearily plodding frau with a harried and distracted expres- 
sion (and the most facial hair I’ve ever seen on a woman) carried a 
baby in a sling in front of her, while she herded two small children 
ahead. Curious, I thought, only the two men, yet there were six 
women, and ten children and... 

"They’re polygamists!” Leonard whispered, and we looked at 
each other with raised eyebrows. Our prurient conjectures were in- 


773 



The Masked Rider 


terrupted by the arrival of the nuns, who spread an assortment of 
steaming bowls on a neighboring table. A bass voice began singing 
behind me, quickly joined by the rest of the Germans, and we sat 
quietly as they delivered their Grace. In contrast to Vespers, this 
performance was loud, most of them singing at full voice, and it was 
proud. The women sang ever higher, and even veered off into har- 
monies, “projecting” their songs to the Lord with their heads erect 
and their chests puffed out. It wasn't prayer so much as a Wagne- 
rian performance. Their eyes alone were frightening, burning like a 
hawk’s at the kill, with pure fanaticism and an attitude I can only 
describe as “vainglorious.” 

Why, if the nuns were so beautiful in their worship, was there 
something so profoundly ugly about this? 

There is sometimes a disturbing cast to a face which has nothing 
to do with features or expression. Perhaps the inner light of smug- 
ness, of being in possession of the truth, and the mean pride of wor- 
shipping that truth better than someone else. I had seen that face 
before, without knowing what I regarded. 

On the Caribbean island of Montserrat, where I was recording 
at Air Studios (before Hurricane Hugo razed the island and closed 
the studio), I once stood with my wife Jackie outside the tiny air- 
port, waiting to put her onto a flight to Antigua and home. A large 
group of tourists crowded out by the runway. They wore ordinary 
clothes, and had ordinary bodies and faces, but there was something 
about them that made me uneasy. I whispered to Jackie with a 
laugh that it was the “ugly people’s convention,” but they weren’t 
definably ugly. It was just something I sensed. 

Their matching baggage tags identified them as a Canadian 
Evangelical Crusade, visiting Montserrat — one of the most 
unspoiled and well-adjusted islands in the whole Caribbean — and 
why? For the same reason we were, I’m sure. Montserrat is a won- 
derful place to visit, and no doubt all the better if your church is 
paying for it. 

The man I had marked as the “scariest-looking of all,” with a 
Velcro smile and opaque eyes, turned out to be the leader. He waved 
goodbye and took off in his private plane, while the other shepherds 
and sheep crowded onto the commercial flight with the unfortunate 
Jackie. Perhaps she was well defended against acts-of-God, but a 
smart deity would see through those faces too. 


114 



Neil Peart 


And now in Cameroon I was seeing those same faces again, only 
this time I understood why. Pride, the first deadly sin. The 
Lutherans’ loud performance of Grace was not worship, it was not 
adoration or prayer, it was “Look at me! See how I sing for my God! 
He has given me this voice and I’m damned proud of it!” 

But, if the Lutheran Grace was a little excessive, the Catholic 
meal was pretty good. The first soup we’d been offered in Cameroon, 
rice in a thin broth, was followed by large bowls of rice and cabbage, 
a sauce with a rumor of meat in it, and, oddly enough, a tray of fried 
eggs, sunny-side-up. Bottles of beer and orange soda were lined up 
on a side table, with a list of prices on the side of a slotted can. The 
“honor system,” no less. Leonard leaned over to me with an evil 
smile. “Psst — Hey! Let’s rip off the nuns!” 

As the Lutherans finished their meal, the women rose from the 
tables in a great flurry, collecting dishes and stacking them at the 
sink in the corner of the room. As soon as our plates were empty we 
carried them over and offered to help, but they waved us away. “You 
can do eet een ze moaning,” one of them said. 

The most “normal” looking of the German women — the only 
one you might not be afraid to be caught sitting beside on an air- 
plane — was careful to explain to Leonard that she was “just the 
nanny.” Her fleshy face was tired-looking and pale, red hair in un- 
tidy wisps, and one could only guess at the joy of her existence. 

The older missionary remained seated, talking quietly with a 
child on his lap, while the dwarfish one in the blue pajamas made a 
great show of playing with the children, who had lined up the empty 
chairs to make a “bus.” He laughed and yelled louder than anyone 
as he patronized each of the children in turn, but his performance 
seemed false, contrived to impress, and lacked the innocence that 
playing with children should evoke. 


The stars were bright as we strolled back to the dormitory and 
lay on our scattered beds. For once it really was a quiet night in 
Cameroon, the only one we’d experienced so far, and it was espe- 
cially appreciated after the riotous all-night action in Bafang. I 
asked Leonard about the book he was reading, The Roswell Inci- 
dent, and he told me it was an expose kind of story, claiming that a 


115 



The Masked Rider 


spaceship had crash-landed in New Mexico in the late ’40s, and was 
recovered by the Air Force, who kept it secret all that time. “Either 
it’s a big lie, or one of the most significant things ever to happen,” 
said the fair-minded Leonard. 

It wasn’t long before I looked over and saw him asleep with The 
Roswell Incident open over his face, I got up and turned off the over- 
head light and climbed into my sleeping bag, and read a while 
longer with the flashlight on my shoulder. In Dear Theo, Vincent 
had renounced religion for art (an excellent alternative), and his let- 
ters became much more interesting. Now the tender-hearted 
Vincent had taken up with a “woman of the streets,” and was deter- 
mined to rehabilitate her. And he too had experienced his apostasy: 


Often when I walked in the streets quite lonely 
and forlorn, half ill and in misery, without money in 
my pocket, I looked after them and envied the men 
that could go with them; and I felt as if those poor 
girls were my sisters, in circumstances and experi- 
ence. And you see that it is an old feeling of mine, 
and is deeply rooted. Even as a boy I often looked 
up with infinite sympathy, and even with respect, 
into a half-faded woman’s face, on which was writ- 
ten, as it were: Life in its reality has left its mark 
here. 

That God of the clergymen, He is for me as 
dead as a doornail. But am I an atheist for all that? 
The clergymen consider me as such — be it so; but 
I love, and how could I feel love if I did not live, and 
if others did not live, and then, if we live, there is 
something mysterious in that. Now call that God, or 
human nature or whatever you like, but there is 
something which I cannot define systematically, 
though it is very much alive and very real, and see, 
that is God, or as good as God. To believe in God 
for me is to feel that there is a God, not a dead one, 
or a stuffed one, but a living one, who with irresist- 
ible force urges us towards ‘aimer encore,’ that is 
my opinion. 


'Mine too,’ I thought as I switched off the flashlight and turned 
on my side. The music of Vespers still wandered through my 
thoughts, and two epiphanies in one day had been too much for a 
linear-thinking agnostic like me. The small girl that morning, okay 


116 



Neil Peart 


— it had been the sense of her life that had shaken off my world- 
weary mood so suddenly, had lighted up my darkness with a simple 
greeting. 

As for Vespers, that was more complicated. Had it been a choir 
of monks, say, or boys, it probably wouldn’t have touched me so 
deeply; it was the voices of the Sisters, and the feeling behind their 
gentle song. And I wondered if it was partly about sex. Gender , re- 
ally. Not sexual desire, but sexual polarity and appreciation. 

When we were among the children of Cameroon, Annie once re- 
marked that I seemed to love the little girls most, while, she 
laughed, it was the boys who attracted her. And it was true, I might 
give the boys a friendly smile, but it was the sweet little girls who 
melted my heart, and made me theirs. Nothing Freudian about it, 
just appreciation for your opposite. Daddy’s little girl and Mommy’s 
little boy. I have a female friend who shares my enjoyment of Italian 
opera, but for her it is the basses and the baritones who are the at- 
traction, while for me it is the sopranos of Madama Butterfly or 
Tosca that carry me away. 

Most of us learn at some point that sex is more than the dirty 
words chalked on the schoolyard wall, but we can still be surprised 
how deeply it runs in our cells. And for humans, certainly it has 
long transcended its biological imperative — or at least we have 
dressed up that imperative in so much significance, protocol, and 
ritual that it begins to overwhelm even that of the Catholic Church. 
(Though not quite, for a lot of people: “Beware the streak of crass 
Western materialism in development...”) 

As an act, we no longer accept the basic reproductive coupling; 
we want it to be an idealized experience, a romantic, as well as 
physical, catharsis of intimacy, pleasure, and trust. The threads of 
that desire (or need , as a courageous high-school Health teacher 
once dared to tell our class) become the fibres of existence on so 
many levels, and manifested in so many ways. 

Some relations are easy to see. Rock ’n’ roll music is about sex, 
sure, implicitly and often explicitly, but so are nearly all popular 
songs. Perhaps, in subtler ways, opera and ballet are about sex too, 
and about spectacle — another common denominator that a Rossini 
fan might not admit to sharing with a Rush fan. But the romance, 
the live presence , the magic of lighting and the dramatic illusions of 
staging, all appeal to the same taste for the sensational and fantas- 
tic. 


117 



The Masked Rider 


Entertainment preferences also tell some tales in broad generali- 
ties of gender (perilous earth, I know), though in this case it seems 
as if we don’t respond to our opposite , but rather to the ideal gender- 
type of our own. It’s fair to say (and easy to show) that many fe- 
males are attracted to an ideal of sexual magnetism , exemplified by 
romance novels, movies, pop music, and its ephemeral faux-rebels. 
For males, the ideal of sexual strength often attracts — contact 
sports, paramilitary heroes, and aggressive music. A heavy-metal 
audience will be ninety per cent male, and the audience of the latest 
teen idol will be ninety per cent female. This is not a stereotype; this 
is choice. 

So, if we can accept that the yin and yang of it all is sensitivity 
and aggression, perhaps that explains why so many great artists 
have been homosexual, whether active or latent. In that other peril- 
ous earth, the gray area between the sexes, is found the sensitivity 
to feel something the artist wishes to say, and the aggression (or ar- 
rogance) to go ahead and try to do it. 

One thing, though, doesn’t change for most of us. Boys like to 
look at girls, and girls like to look at boys. As a male friend of mine 
once said, “Men may be the stronger sex, but women are certainly 
the sexier sex.” 


A morning prayer service called Matins was to be held before 
dawn, and by 5:00 I was awake, dressing quietly and slipping out of 
the dormitory into the darkness. The opportunity for another 
epiphany was not to be missed, though my companions felt they 
could do without it, and slept on. The moon had set, but in that re- 
mote place the stars were bright enough to see by, and all was silent 
as I stood near the church looking up at the sky. 

My eyes were drawn to the clear diamond of Orion, directly 
above me, and the necklace of the Pleiades beside it. The Pleiades 
are always “my stars,” the constellation I look for at night, wherever 
I am, and feel comforted. My stars. My grandmother used to say 
that all the time, often as an oath of exasperation with me — “my 
stars, boy!” Or even “you can thank your lucky stars . . .” I’d never 
reflected on what it meant before. Astrology? Superstition? Cer- 
tainly not Puritanism. 


118 



Neil Peart 


Eyes fixed on the heavens, I felt immersed in the starscape 
above, all other senses suspended. Awareness became only a projec- 
tion, not what I was, but where I was, and for a brief moment the 
stars truly became my universe. I existed only as another point of 
light among the galaxies, looking out from a microscopic planet, and 
an abstraction called Africa. I was out there ; the Universe was my 
home, and the Pleiades were my family. My stars. Then a bug bit 
me. 

Trees and buildings began to materialize in the yet-impercep- 
tible light. Still no sign of life in the church, and only a dim glow of 
moving light inside the monastery building, so I decided that Matins 
must be a time of private prayer. Then I smiled to think what it had 
been for me — a chance to escape self-consciousness, and to send 
myself outward instead of inward. A time of private prayer as it 
ought to be, not the begging of favors and forgiveness, but a pure 
kind of humility and selflessness. 

My mask was slipping. I shook off this religious fervor, this un- 
characteristic humility and selflessness, and went back to my mo- 
nastic quarters to doze for a while until breakfast. 

Later I walked up to the refectory with the older of the mission- 
aries, the tall gray-haired one whose eyes had seemed kind. From 
down the hill we heard a class of children singing out their lessons, 
and I remarked how exuberant they sounded. To my surprise, he 
shook his head sadly. “Ja, it is always like zat.” He pointed to his 
forehead with both index fingers, “Zey are zinging , but zey are not 
sinking .” 

I was silent, trying to make out exactly what he meant (and I 
don’t mean his accent). Was it a condemnation of the Catholic teach- 
ing methods, or a comment on the inability of Africans to think? Ev- 
erywhere in the world children are taught things by rote — first 
they learn the symbols, the words and numbers, and later in life 
they can worry about their abstract connections. How can children 
know that the numbers they add with such effort will someday be 
the symbols of life and death, of survival or starvation? Or that 
those numbers will be used to decide their fates, add the number 
and nature of their responsibilities, the reward they are given for 
their work, the debts they owe for their needs? Why do children 
have to know that? Let them sing. 


119 



The Masked Rider 


Breakfast was simple, bread and hot water for tea or instant cof- 
fee. But there was butter for the bread, another first, and even jam, 
though it was a sickly-sweet paste. There was another mysterious 
jar, the contents of which no one tasted, though everyone took a 
sniff of the molasses-like liquid that smelled of prunes. 

We agreed that Elsa should leave early to get a headstart in the 
cool morning, and sent her down the road while the rest of us 
cleaned up. The Bicycle Africa team moved into action; Leonard and 
David gathered up the plates and cups and brought them to the 
sink, while I began washing and Annie picked up a towel to dry. 
Soon we were loading up our bikes on the lawn by the dormitory, 
and saying goodbye to our Catholic hosts, and to their Lutheran 
guests. Breakfast and dishwashing made a late start for us, nearly 
9:00, and the morning was already hot. 

In David’s itinerary the route was described as “paved, roller 
coaster, and climbing” for a distance of thirty-five miles, and I looked 
down at the map on my handlebar bag, eyes tracing the black line of 
highway N-6 to Bamenda. The black line had a lot of squiggles in it, 
a sure sign that it was not flat. Ahead of me the highway receded 
over a series of hills like a gray serpent, and soon I was grinding up- 
ward. Minibuses raced by in both directions, and the lizards ran for 
cover. A large butterfly, black velvet wings with bright turquoise 
stripes, perched on the road in perfect beauty. Dead, but perfect. “A 
Disappointment Is A Blessing,” read the signboard on one of the 
passing minibuses, and I thought about that for awhile. 

Nearly everyone I passed, man, woman, or child, smiled and 
waved, and I returned their greetings happily. When I went by the 
old women as they hiked along the road with baskets on their heads, 
I noticed they often smelled of woodsmoke, no doubt from years of 
hunching over open fires in tiny houses. 

After two long hills I was well into the rhythm of the day, but 
my pace and my internal monologue were interrupted by a road- 
block just before the village of Mbouda. The green-uniformed soldier 
who interrogated me barked his questions rudely, then demanded 
my passport, which he spent long minutes scrutinizing. Finally he 
handed it back, and nodded toward the highway, indicating “get 
lost.” 

Another security check awaited me on the other side of Mbouda, 
and I spied a pale figure in light-colored clothing and white helmet 
— Elsa, stopped at the side of the road in front of two soldiers. If Fd 


120 



Neil Peart 


caught up to her already, when she’d had more than an hour’s 
headstart, I presumed she’d been stopped there for awhile, and 
smelled trouble. After the unpleasant grilling I’d just received, I felt 
my body tense again, suspicious nerves activated and prepared for a 
hassle. 

Riding straight over to them, I straddled my bike and struck a 
defiant pose, asking Elsa what the problem was. But no, there was 
no problem. These soldiers were friendly, and merely curious. One of 
them had been chatting with Elsa in schoolboy English, asking 
about her travels in Cameroon, her home in California, and her fam- 
ily, while the other looked on, smiling and listening. The talkative 
soldier took my passport as he continued asking about our journey, 
now addressing me more comfortably in French. Once I’d explained 
where we’d been, and where we were going, he handed the passport 
back without even looking at it; his partner nodded and smiled 
widely to us, and they waved us on. 

When Elsa disappeared behind me on the first climb, it occurred 
to me that if it had taken her over an hour to travel three or four 
miles, she was in for a long day. And so was David, who felt obliged 
to stay back with her when no one else would. David seemed infi- 
nitely patient, and I admired him for that, but privately he’d admit- 
ted he didn’t enjoy spending his days riding in circles at the top of 
every hill while Elsa made her way up, then having to stop while 
she had a drink and complained for a while. He had advised her 
against resting at the top of a hill, stewing in the heat of the climb, 
when the best relief of all was simply coasting down the other side, 
with no exertion and the cooling wind of speed. He’d also tried to get 
her to drink from her water bottle while she rode, instead of stop- 
ping every time. But like the proverbial old dog, she wanted no new 
tricks. 

Now, Elsa was sixty years of age, and fully entitled to be slower 
than the rest of us, but sometimes a slow rider has nothing to do 
with strength or age; it can be a mental thing. There’s probably a 
metaphor for life there. At whatever speed, sensible riders choose 
their pace and stick to it, taking breaks at considered intervals, and 
if a hill is too steep they’ll walk up it. But they keep going. 

On other trips with groups of cyclists, I have noticed that the 
slow riders are often the last to be ready in the morning, still pack- 
ing their bikes, or looking for water, or pumping tires when every- 
one else is ready to go. Also, they are often the ones who dally at ev- 


121 



The Masked Rider 


ery stop, and stop more often than they need to. Obviously it’s not 
laziness, or they wouldn’t be on a bike trip in the first place, but a 
certain lack of focus, a sloppiness of mind, seems to carry over from 
their personalities to their cycling, and it slows them down. 

That would be fine, of course, but a negative attitude is often 
part of that temperament — a loud resentment of the hills, the food, 
the hotels, the guide, and how long it’s taking to get there. In the 
“group dynamics” of a bike tour, that’s the real problem. Not waiting 
for the slower riders, but listening to them complain. 

Some riders like hills and some don’t. Another metaphor for life. 
In many ways a challenge is its own reward, but in this respect I’ve 
always felt the equation was simple: you go up, you get a view. And I 
like views. 

When I parked my bike against a tree outside Bamenda several 
hours later, I knew I’d have a long wait, but at least I was at the top 
of a hill — I had a view. From the edge of an escarpment, a sheer 
cliff called a “fault scarp,” I had a panoramic overview of the town 
far below, a sprawling array of low buildings, the brown earth of the 
market area, and a green soccer field. Green hills rippled away into 
the distance. 

The road beside me made a hairpin turn as it started down the 
escarpment, then twisted across the steep wall in switchbacks. 
Nearly every driver turned to stare at me as he started into that 
first corner, and I began to worry that I was about to witness a 
busload of innocent passengers hurtling over the precipice, while 
the driver rubber-necked at me. Tires squealed as the distracted 
drivers went into the turn too fast, or at the wrong angle, and I fi- 
nally moved back up the road, away from the corner, so the drivers 
could get over their shock and curiosity in time to look back at the 
road before they had to negotiate the hairpin. This was a true act of 
altruism, for I had to move away from the shade and bake in the 
sun, and I’m sure by now the people of Bamenda have erected a 
statue to me. 

Leonard was the first to arrive, bathed in sweat as usual. He 
took off his sunglasses to wipe his face with a bandana, then peeled 
off his shirt to wring a stream of water from it. Propping his bicycle 
on its stand, he fixed his umbrella upright on the back and sat on 
the ground with his legs curled up to squeeze his whole body into 
the small patch of shade. He swore he was getting a terrible sun- 
burn, but I laughed and told him he didn’t look very red. 


122 



Neil Peart 


Now Annie — Annie was red, from the heat and exertion as well 
as the sun, as she rode up with her glasses askew and her dark hair 
poking out of her bandana in every direction. “Whew!” she said, 
“heh-heh, quite a ride!” 

Yes it was, and it was quite a wait too. We sat there by the side 
of the road for an hour and a half in the broiling sun, Annie taking 
shelter beneath a tree across the road and Leonard under his um- 
brella, before David and Elsa finally arrived. They both looked grim, 
though for different reasons. Elsa was silent, stern, and frustrated, 
while David was silent and resigned, even his beatific patience 
stretched to the limit. With a weak smile, he pedaled on by us with- 
out pause, determined not to give Elsa another excuse to stop. She 
continued behind David as he coasted around the first sharp curve, 
and the rest of us mounted up and followed. 

At the bottom of each fast descent, crouching into the wind, 
hands down on the bars, the road turned back on itself in a sharp 
hairpin, forcing me to squeeze the brakes hard and carefully lean 
into the curve. The cars and big trucks strained against their brakes 
as they roared up behind me, urging me into the side of the road as 
they passed. There was no enjoying the view. 

At the bottom we followed David through a maze of streets and 
onto a wide boulevard. Tall trees hung over the rooftops and soft- 
ened the squareness of the buildings, and behind everything was 
that spectacular escarpment, a distant waterfall tumbling down it. 
Two- and three-storey buildings lined the boulevard, banks, restau- 
rants, gas stations, and shops selling hardware, books, furniture, 
crafts, portable stereos. Shirts and dresses on hangers, displayed 
above the tiny shops, moved gently in the breeze. Street pedlars of- 
fered racks of cassettes, tables of used books, and food — the little 
pyramids of peeled oranges, bananas, and brochettes (pig-guts-on-a- 
stick). The market was buzzing; masses of people thronged the 
stalls; women squeezed through with baskets of produce on their 
heads, and the boys carried neatly- arrayed baskets of cigarettes. 
The competing blasts of music mingled with the talk and laughter, 
and an occasional voice sang out from the crowd. The people seemed 
friendly, the streets relatively clean. There was a good “feel” about 
Bamenda, and I was glad we’d be spending an extra day. 


123 



The Masked Rider 


Sometime during the night I woke to the sound of voices outside, 
the busy, murmuring undertone of many people on the streets. My 
first thought was of the citizens of Bamenda on their way to work, 
or to market, but I looked toward the window and saw it was still 
dark. And I heard no other sounds, no cars, no buses, no music. 
Strange. I felt for the Casio on the floor beside the bed, brought it up 
in front of my face and found the stupid little button to illuminate 
the digits, it was only 1:00. Maybe it was a revolution, an uprising, a 
mob coming to kill whitey. 

'Better wake up Leonard/ I thought, 'He can hold them off while 
we get away.’ 

Curious, I crept out of bed and over to the balcony, looking down 
from our fourth-floor room over the main street. The row of 
streetlamps in the center of the boulevard cast circles of light, and 
crowds of people gathered under each one in faint silhouettes. They 
moved slowly about, as if aimlessly, like a bunch of escaped lunatics, 
and all the while the constant muttering babble. Talking and laugh- 
ing and calling out to each other, each individual voice lost in the 
mass. 

Shadows whirled above the street — big enough to be bats, but 
whirling in dizzy orbits around the lights. Occasionally one circled 
out from the light and fell to the ground, and a dark figure raced for 
it. One young boy ran around filling a Coke bottle, while others 
picked them up with one hand and filled the other with their har- 
vest. I stood on the balcony trying to make sense of it. 'Okay, they’re 
harvesting locusts. But what for?’ 

'Bait for fishing?’ I thought, 'or maybe they make something out 
of them? Furniture? 

'Ha — I know, they probably eat them.’ Back to sleep. Just be- 
fore dawn I awoke for good, to find the streets silent and empty. 

Things Women Carry On Their Heads, Volume VI: Looking 
down from the balcony of the International Hotel at sunrise, I 
watched a woman carrying a five-gallon pail of water on her head. It 
must have weighed fifty pounds, and she didn’t spill a drop. 

We made an early start for the village of Bafut, leaving our pan- 
niers in the rooms. My unladen bike felt light and supple as we 
wheeled throught the back streets* of Bamenda. Children batted at 
the trees and shrubs with sticks, hunting for any leftover bugs. In 
front of one house a hand-lettered sign was posted, “No Trespassing 
lb Catch Grasshoppers.” I asked David about this insect harvest, 


124 



Neil Peart 


and he told me that people did indeed eat them, and that when fried 
the grasshoppers produced a rich oil. 

“You ever try them?” I asked him. 

'Yeah, once. Not bad. Wouldn't you?” 

I thought about it for a moment. Yeah, I guess I would — if 
they were offered to me.” (Years later, in Mexico, my bravado was 
put to the test. I ate them. They were good.) 

We were on our way to visit the palace of an important chief, a 
personage locally called a “Fon.” (Leonard came out with one of his 
shameless puns. “Tfell me; what exactly does a Fon doT to a chorus 
of groans.) Bafut was only ten miles away, and the road was paved, 
but it spanned a few hills. I stopped once at the top of a long climb 
to wait for Elsa, and when she finally came struggling up I smiled 
and waved her on. “Go ahead.” 

But my smile quickly faded when she snapped, “What do you 
mean 'go ahead?' Don't you people even stop to blow your nose?” and 
she sneered and pulled a handkerchief from her bag. Stung, I an- 
swered sharply, “No — we stop to wait for you!” and pedaled away. 

I thought of other older people I'd traveled with. On safari in 
Tanzania with a group of mixed ages and nationalities, there'd been 
Ray and Day, a sunny New Zealander couple, both near seventy 
years of age. Through miles of heat and dust, they had bounced 
around in the back of that old truck all day with the rest of us, then 
helped lug the tents to the campsite, set them up and tear them 
down every day. They had never complained. In fact they were smil- 
ing and happy, and always more solicitous of others than them- 
selves. 

Or my friend Gay. Pushing fifty, and by her own admission no 
athlete, yet she had cycled all over Europe, and in China and Aus- 
tralia, had pedaled over the Alps, the Pyrenees, and the Rockies 
with our group, and had never been heard to complain about any- 
thing. If the climb was too much for her, she simply got off and 
walked, enjoying the music on her Walkman and waiting for the top, 
so she could earn the great pleasure of going downhill — her favor- 
ite part. 

But Elsa didn't seem to have a “favorite part,” nor any “great 
pleasure,” and I soon learned that others were aware of this too. In 
the village of Bafut, we had to make a turn to reach the Fon’s Pal- 
ace, so the four of us stopped at the crossroads to wait for Elsa. Min- 
utes went by, ten, fifteen, then twenty, until David finally said, “You 


125 



The Masked Rider 


know, she could be stopped just beyond that hill, waiting for some- 
one to come after her. I wouldn’t put it past her to do that — just out 
of spite!” 

Annie giggled; I made a wry face and nodded; and Leonard 
laughed in agreement. 

Elsa finally appeared, slouched over the bicycle and wearing a 
martyred look, and David turned and whispered, "Quick, get mov- 
ing. Don’t give her another excuse to stop,” so we pushed off and 
continued down the dirt track. 

Just where a market came into view on our right, a homemade 
barricade was stretched across the road, bits of rope and strips of 
rubber tied together. A short, fat man strutted out and raised his 
hand officiously. "Where is your pass?” 

A few other layabouts stood at the roadside looking on, as David 
said politely, "We are going to visit the Fon’s Palace, we don’t need a 
pass.” 

"Yes you do,” said the frowning man. "You must have a pass.” 

David asked him, "Are you a gendarme?” 

"Yes, I am a gendarme.” 

<4 Where is your uniform?” 

"I don’t need a uniform.” He pointed at the pathetic barricade, 
"This is my uniform.” 

"And is this how you welcome visitors to your country?” David 
said. 

The "gendarme” looked a little unsure, but said nothing. (Like 
the mayor of Limbe, he was "taken aback.”) I noticed his handful of 
tickets marked "Hawker’s Pass,” presumably for sellers at the mar- 
ket, and said to David, "Looks like a hustle.” 

We resisted the temptation to be rude, to challenge his home- 
made barricade and his homemade authority, and just stood there, 
straddling our bikes, and stared at him silently. Finally he realized 
we weren’t about to offer him a "dash,” so he turned and muttered 
something to his companions. One of them dropped the barricade, 
and we pedaled on, feeling as if we’d got away with something. 

We stopped at the market to ask about breakfast, and were di- 
rected to a small clay hut. Inside, a big stone-featured woman mo- 
tioned us to a pair of rattan benches, and went to work at her tiny 
kerosene stove. We enjoyed a new culinary delight, with the sneezy 


126 



Neil Peart 


name of achu (a grayish dough of pounded yams) along with rice, 
hard-boiled eggs and papaya. Then it was off to see the wizard. 

As we parked our bikes against the high brick wall outside the 
Fon’s Palace, locking them together and pulling out our cameras 
and long trousers, a woman came out and asked if we wanted to 
visit the Palace. She told us she was one of the Fon’s wives (one of 
ninety-seven wives, we learned). She was tall and graceful, in her 
early thirties, dressed in a well-made dark blue dress with a red and 
gold floral print, and a matching kerchief. Her shoes looked Italian, 
and her speech was cultivated and articulate as she told us that it 
would cost us a thousand francs each to tour the Palace. There was 
a bit of humming and hawing about that, but I pulled out my wallet 
and said, "Come on, it’s only a few dollars. When’s the next time 
you’ll have the chance to visit a Fon’s Palace?” 

The Fon’s wife led us inside, telling us as we walked that the 
Fon was thirty-five, and that only four of his ninety-seven wives 
were legally married to him; many of the others were widows or des- 
titute women for whom he was responsible, along with 415 children. 
“Whoa!” Leonard said, impressed. The wives lived in rows of little 
brick houses which lined the outside of the vast compound. On the 
far side of the courtyard was an impressive stone and glass building 
where visiting chiefs and dignitaries could stay. 

In the middle of the compound was an open lawn shaded by tall 
trees and a single jacaranda tree, spreading clouds of mauve flowers 
over the courtyard. A gatehouse along one side was painted with li- 
ons (a symbol of royalty from England to Cameroon) and above an 
archway a sign stated the obvious: "Fon’s Palace.” This arch opened 
into a courtyard of white-painted stone, where the Fon would sit on 
his elaborately carved throne and listen to petitions and disputes 
among his people, or consult with the sub-chiefs. 

Beyond the small courtyard was the tallest building of all, its 
stone steps leading up to a bamboo pavilion with a tightly-thatched 
pyramid roof. There the Fon conducted his secret ceremonies and 
rituals, and as we admired the intricate decorative work of carved 
idols and animal heads, I caught a glimpse of a white-robed figure 
gliding past the doorway. The Fon himself, though he didn’t come 
out to greet us. 


127 



The Masked Rider 


I stretched up on tiptoe to admire a chair with beautifully 
carved humanoid figures forming the legs and arms, and beside the 
chair I smiled to see an empty bottle of Heineken on its side. Per- 
haps the Fon had just been enjoying his morning beer when we in- 
terrupted him with our tour. Hopefully the five thousand francs we 
were contributing to his coffers would be some consolation. When I 
pointed it out to Leonard he laughed and said, “Here we are in the 
Fon’s Palace, beside the Fon’s Pavilion, there’s the Fon’s Chair, and 
here’s the Fon’s Beer!” 

We gathered back outside by the bicycles, where for the first 
time I noticed a small thatched hut on a stone platform in the 
middle of the square. In front of it stood a big slit drum, carved from 
one giant log, but as I moved closer to look at it, a voice from across 
the road warned me away. David tried to approach it as well, but 
was also waved off. The Fon’s wife told us this was the den of the 
Fon’s secret society, a tradition which was also tied up with the juju 
enforcers, and that no one else was permitted near it. The price of 
admission for a woman was death. 


The rest of the day was spent in a pleasantly lazy fashion. We 
cycled back to Bamenda for lunch, pushing through a beaded cur- 
tain at the Star Restaurant for a meal of rice with tomato and meat 
sauce, and the green sauce called ndole. I spent an hour waiting to 
cash a traveler’s cheque in the bank (not bad for an African bank, 
and great compared to Bafang, where I hadn’t been able to cash one 
at all), then wandered the streets for awhile, looking in the shops 
and enjoying the music which played everywhere. A sign above a 
clothing store advertised “Isometric Shopping,” a concept about 
which one could only wonder. 

Bamenda was the largest town in the English-speaking part of 
Cameroon, and was well-supplied with bookstores, always a favorite 
haunt for me. Some of the shops were large and spacious, others just 
small kiosks piled to the ceiling with schoolbooks and assorted west- 
ern novels. I was surprised to see the Compact Oxford Dictionary in 
one tiny shop — the C.O.D. is “compact” only by comparison to the 
twelve-volume set it replaces, by reducing the typeface to micro- 
scopic size. But even so, it’s a sizeable two-volume set, with its own 


128 



Neil Peart 


little magnifying glass in a drawer in the binding, and would have 
been worth hundreds of dollars. I wondered who they thought was 
going to buy it. 

In a small grocery store I discovered a faded-looking tube of 
Smarties, which sparked a chocolate fever, and also a bottle of water 
and some cookies. (I smiled to see the trademark on the cookies: 
“Barbara Dee’s,” made in Marietta, Oklahoma.) I carried my trea- 
sures back up to our room, and lay back to browse through a newly- 
purchased Geography of Cameroon. 

Leonard returned from his shopping excursion, and sat down for 
a moment to watch the exciting activity of David and me reading. 
He seemed a little down, perhaps struck by the same homesickness 
that had afflicted me a few times that day. After a few minutes he 
got up again and said he was going down to get some “Vitamin B.” 
He returned a few minutes later with some cans of beer, and an- 
nounced that he was going to “sit on the balcony and get fucked-up.” 
This he proceeded to do. 


129 




The drum makers , Ghana. 


130 




Only one incident would mar my good impression of Bamenda. 
Next morning, as David and I cycled together on our way out of 
town, I heard running feet behind me, and turned to see a hand 
snatching the bottle of water from the top of my rack. I stopped, 
straddled the bike, and looked into the belligerent, sneering face of a 
well-built man in his thirties, neatly dressed in white shirt and 
black trousers, and holding my precious water. I called out for David 
to stop, and asked the water-snatcher, “What do you think you're do- 
ing?” 

“Black man is faster than white man,” he said tauntingly, then 
played the extend-it-grab-it-back game a few times. I dropped my bi- 
cycle on the road and swiped the bottle from his hands. 

“Black man is faster and stronger,” he sneered, “I can break you 
in two.” 

David spoke up with his excellent phrase, “Is this how you wel- 
come visitors to your country?” But, while that thought often 
changed people's attitudes, it had no effect this time. 

“This is Black Africa,” the man said, with a note of defiance. 

Two other young men had stopped, and they looked embarrassed 
and apologetic. One of them spoke to me shyly: “He is not,” he 
groped for the word, “He is not...” 

“He is crazy!” supplied the other. 

The first man danced a little as he jeered at us, “Black man is 
stronger; black man is faster!” 

David tried another diplomatic tack, turning away to ignore 
him. He pointed to a sign which read Baptist Heliport, and told me 
that the Baptist Church kept their own helicopter there, and had 
more airplanes than the Liberian Air Force. 

“This is Black Africa,” repeated the man. 


131 




The Masked Rider 


lb me, David said “I don’t remember this road being paved,” 
then he turned to the man, hoping to mollify him with a civil ques- 
tion. “How long has this road been paved?” 

But he took offence at that as well. “How long have the roads 
been paved in your country?” 

David shrugged, “Different places, different conditions.” 

“Yes, that’s right,” the other man replied defensively. “This is 
Black Africa.” 

Just then Leonard came riding up, and Mr. Black Africa must 
have thought he’d found an ally, saying to him, “This man just asked 
me a funny question.” 

“Oh yeah?” Leonard said, looking at us and wondering what was 
going on. 

‘Yes, he asked me how long this road has been paved.” 

David spoke quietly to Leonard. “Forget it. Just go on ahead, 
this guy’s a little belligerent.” 

Annie and Elsa came into view as we mounted up again, and I 
turned once more to Mr. Black Africa. “He only asked you that be- 
cause he has been down this road before, when it wasn't paved — 
Mister Friendly.” 

“Okay, Mister Enemy !” he taunted again, as we pedaled away. 

We struck off to the northeast on a dirt road. Stones jostled my 
wheels and dust swallowed them up. Passing trucks and minibuses 
churned that dust and trailed a thick, choking cloud. Once more I 
pulled the bandana over my face, though even then my throat began 
to ache from inhaling the opaque air. I thought I must have picked 
up something in Bamenda, one of those Upper Respiratory Infec- 
tions which are common in the Third World. My throat felt swollen, 
talking was painful, and my voice had a hard edge. 

In the village of Bamboui we stopped for breakfast at “Jimmy 
Brown’s Achu [Gesundheit!] Eating House,” which was furnished 
with a swaybacked old couch and matching easy chairs. The walls 
were decorated with posters of Michael Jackson, Bob Marley, and 
multiple collections of World Cup soccer teams, African heads-of- 
state, and women from different ethnic groups in traditional cos- 
tumes. Jimmy Brown served up a good omelette with onions, and a 
cup of tea soothed my raspy throat. David pointed out different faces 
on the African heads-of-state poster. “This guy’s been deposed, this 
one’s been shot, this one’s in exile...” 


132 



Neil Peart 


We compared the photos of Michael Jackson at various stages of 
his career, from an Afro-topped child prodigy with the Jackson Five 
to the booted-and-buckled cosmetic-surgery and skin-bleaching testi- 
monial of Bad. Looking at a series of images like that, you can trace 
all the “enhancements” to his nose, lips, eyes — even his skin color. 
“Poor Michael,” I said aloud. 

“Why do you say that?” asked Annie. 

'Well, there’s no question he’s very talented, but I have to won- 
der if he wouldn’t have been a happier person if the family had just 
stayed in Gary, Indiana, and he’d gone to work for Ford or some- 
thing. Think about it: what’s he going to look like when he’s fifty, 
and parts of his face still look like Diana Ross?” 

“Scary thought,” Leonard said. 

“Nah — he’ll just have some more operations,” David laughed, 
“and work in Vegas!” (Prophetic remarks, no doubt.) 

The day’s itinerary gave the cycling conditions as “dirt, rolling, 
and big hills,” and so it was. The “dirt” and “rolling” were bad 
enough, but the “big hills” were a real torment. After Bamboui we 
began a series of climbs up a steep escarpment, winding around 
rocky cliffs and bare, corrugated hills. The fine dust which coated 
the road was like talcum powder, and would have been a joy to walk 
in barefoot, but cycling in it was hell. The steep incline was right on 
the limit of my gearing, right on the limit of traction, right on the 
limit of strength. If I leaned forward to put more weight on the front 
wheel for steering, I lost grip on the rear wheel, while if I sat back 
to keep my weight on the rear wheel for traction, the front wheel 
hopped uselessly in the dust. 

At least there was no “break-dancing” that day — I stayed on top 
of my bike — but several times my wheels began to slip from under 
me and I tasted fear. My bandana went up when the minibuses 
strained by, then down again when the air cleared, long minutes 
later. Panting and sweating in the baking heat, I put all my 
strength into making the pedals go around. 

Sometimes I was charmed and comforted by a soft “ashea” from 
women or children, but I learned a new word from some of the men: 
“ nasarra .” From “Nazarene,” or Christian, nasarra is the Arabic 
equivalent of “white man” or “homme blanc” and was another word 
I would grow to hate in coming days. 


133 


The Masked Rider 


As I slowly climbed higher, occasional signs on dusty laneways 
indicated Catholic schools and missions. Once again these cooler 
highlands had been deemed the best places for soul-saving. And that 
day my own soul was saved, or at least soothed , by Psalm 102, the 
melody that had so affected me at Vespers. I had thought it would be 
too elusive and would slip away, but during that endless climb the 
fragile melody floated up from my subconscious, a little at a time, 
and came together as a calming mantra, spinning itself out again 
and again. 

The scenery was another consolation, as always on a climb. You 
go up, you get a view. Below and behind me lay the highlands of 
Bamenda (I guess we were in the “super-highlands” now) silver roof- 
tops shining, and low purple hills disappearing into the haze. A few 
cinder-cones towered in the distance, volcanic rock frozen into gray 
columns. Waterfalls tumbled from the cliffs, nourishing the grassy 
hills and a few spiky palms, and the sight of moving water was a 
temptation to drop my bicycle and run across the hills to stick my 
head under it. 

A small village sprouted from the highest plateau, where the 
climb finally leveled out, and the road was bordered by neat 
thatched houses in swept yards. Two boys on horseback trotted by, 
turning to stare all the while, then urged their horses into a wild 
gallop through the grass. Along the road came a woman and two 
men, tall with sharp features and thin lips, and dressed in flowing 
headdresses and long robes. This was my first encounter with the 
Fulani people, a once-nomadic tribe thought to be of North African 
descent, who had moved into the north of present-day Cameroon in 
the eleventh century, at the height of the great Fulani Empire. 

Like the Maasai of East Africa, the Fulani had been proud and 
fierce warriors, overwhelming the indigenous tribes and mounting 
slaving expeditions among them. At first the Fulani violently op- 
posed the spread of Islam, then later became equally frenzied con- 
verts and mounted a long, bloody jihad against the pagan chiefs. 
Only the arrival of the Germans halted their hegemony (one of the 
few real benefits of colonialism in Africa was interrupting the 
internecine tribal wars for awhile) and in post-independence Africa 
the Fulani had dwindled to a scattered, pastoral tribe who, like the 
Maasai again, counted their wealth in cattle. 


134 



Neil Peart 


Traditional, Eurocentric Western history tends to gloss over not 
only the great dynasties of China, but also the ancient empires of 
West Africa. Medieval times were not necessarily “dark ages” in 
other parts of the globe; beginning around the tenth century a series 
of highly developed societies evolved on the southern rim of the Sa- 
hara, at the crossroads of the rich trade in gold, salt, ivory, and 
slaves. (In those days salt was so valuable it was traded ounce-for- 
ounce for gold.) Kingdoms like Songhai, Mali, and Ghana became 
wealthy and sophisticated, and built great cities, like Timbuktu, 
which became centers of commerce, religion, and learning. 

Strangely, none of these great empires had a written language, 
but remained dependent upon Arab scholars and bookkeepers. In all 
of sub-Saharan Africa, only two tribes ever developed alphabets: the 
Vai people of Liberia, and a sultan in Cameroon — though he got the 
idea from hearing about Arab and German writing. It is sometimes 
disparagingly said of Africans that “they never even had the wheel,” 
though it can be argued that they didn’t need the wheel. Writing, 
however, they needed, and would continue to import. The Arab 
scholars and bookkeepers became the “International Institute of 
Languages,” just as the wheel became the Nissan minibus... 

... which raced by me in a cloud of dust as I rode out of the 
Fulani village. Having reached the top of this high plateau, now I 
had to go down the other side. And if the way up had been hell, the 
way down — what should have been the reward — was worse. No 
question of a wild and joyous freefall, no exultant downhill rush af- 
ter the heat of the climb; as the road plummeted down the 
mountainside through jolting rocks and slippery dust, I squeezed 
hard on the brakes, trying frantically to control my speed. I had to 
stop often to rest my hands from the constant gripping, and to let 
the wheel rims cool. Heated by friction, they were too hot to touch, 
and added the danger of a blowout. 

One stretch of road was so steep it had been necessary to pave 
it, to allow even the trucks and minibuses to make it up and down. I 
appreciated the break from the treacherous sand and stones, but the 
steep, one-lane strip of asphalt only urged my heavy bicycle to go 
faster. 

While I anxiously squeezed the brakes against the force of grav- 
ity, Leonard sped by, tossed me a “yo,” then disappeared around a 


135 



The Masked Rider 


sharp bend below. Both tempted and challenged by Leonard’s reck- 
lessness, I followed him the rest of the way down, and what had 
taken three hours to climb took about two minutes to descend. Re- 
lieved to feel the road return to an unpaved track and level out, 
Leonard and I pedaled together across the Great Plain of Ndop. Vol- 
canic hills stretched along the northern horizon as we continued to 
the east, bandanas up against the tides of red dust trailed by pass- 
ing traffic. By the time we reached the village of Ndop, a coat of red 
powdered our clothes, skin, and bikes, and I felt the grit between my 
teeth, and in my nose and ears. 

Up in those hills, not far from Ndop, was Lake Wum, the scene 
of a bizarre tragedy. On an August night in 1986 a cloud of toxic gas 
bubbled up from the lake and rolled down into the valley. Thought to 
be of volcanic origin, the gas killed everything in its path — more 
than 1,700 people died in their sleep. Yet I hadn’t even heard about 
it at the time. Just as Western history takes little account of great 
chapters in African or Asian history, so too are their current events 
all but ignored by the Western media — except for the occasional 
“spectacle” of famine or genocide. If an earthquake hits San Fran- 
cisco and kills forty people, we hear about nothing else for days, but 
if a cloud of poison gas wipes out 1,700 people overnight in Africa, or 
an earthquake kills tens of thousands in China, it’s only worth a few 
column-inches in the newspaper, lb every tribe, the farther away 
something occurs, the less important it seems. 

Leonard and I stopped at a humble building of clay blocks and 
corrugated metal. No sign indicated its name, but the fluttering line 
of brewery pennants across the front and the deserted bar inside 
seemed to identify Ndop’s only lodgings, the Festival Hotel. No one 
answered our hellos, so we settled in the shade of the low porch to 
wait for the others, leaning against the stone supports and sipping 
at our water bottles, rinsing away the grit. Leonard pointed back 
the way we’d come, to where a flock of vultures circled in the sky, 
and laughed softly. “I bet they’re over David and Elsa!” 

Annie arrived next, another apparition in red dust, and her 
habit of riding with her mouth open had dotted her front teeth with 
red mud. As she pulled a bandana from her unruly hair and wiped 
at her face and arms, Leonard smiled at me, then turned to her and 
said, “your teeth.” 


136 



Neil Peart 


She looked perplexed. “Huh? Um ... what do you mean?” 

I told her, “Your teeth, they’re kind of muddy .” 

“Oh — heh heh. I guess that’s what I get for riding with my 
mouth open!” 

“Catch any flies?” asked Leonard. 

“Ha-ha... Hmm.” 

An hour later, David and Elsa rode out of the late morning sun. 
Against Leonard’s prediction, both were still alive, though Elsa 
barely so. She’d walked much of the way uphill. David asked how 
we’d enjoyed the ride. 

I answered in mock D.J. hypertalk, “Hey! I thought it was pretty 
horriblel What a road! I’m not sure which was worse — going up or 
coming down !” Elsa nodded silent agreement; I knew it had been 
harder on her. 

David seemed offended. “Well, I would have hoped you’d be ap- 
preciating the scenery up there, rather than just getting upset over 
the road.” 

I smiled and nodded. When people lead you somewhere they’ve 
been before and you haven’t, they sometimes take any criticism of 
the place, even in fun, personally. 

David was able to find someone at the Festival Hotel to give us 
some rooms, and we pushed our bikes through the bar to a row of 
doors in a dingy passage out back. At the end of the hall, two dismal 
closets served as “bathroom,” if three buckets on the floor merits the 
term. A stained and broken toilet could be flushed occasionally by 
filling the tank with water, but the smell suggested previous users 
hadn’t bothered. 

The few guest rooms at the Festival seemed to have been tacked 
onto the back of the bar, and were more likely used, like those at the 
Hotel Happy, for a short-term purpose. A more festive , more happy 
purpose than sheltering passing travelers. I leaned my bike against 
a tilted wardrobe, kicked my shoes onto the concrete floor, and lay 
back on the sagging bed. I looked up at the ceiling, at the flyspecked 
light bulb. The curtains bellied inward on the breeze, the pattern of 
upside-down ducks and reeds looking as out of place in Ndop as I 
was. 

I felt low. My throat was still raw and swollen, my stomach 
wrung with distress, and a nervy edginess sapped at my energy and 


137 



The Masked Rider 


good spirits. Thoughts of home and family were a physical ache. It 
was the kind of mood when you ask yourself all the “why” questions: 
Why am I here? Why do I — no, why did I — want to do this? Why 
don’t I go home? 

While I tried to distract myself from this edgy depression with 
Dear Theo (reading about Vincent’s edgy depression) there was a 
knock at the door. David was reading beside me, and got up to an- 
swer it. I heard him say, “Oh — you want to talk to him” and sud- 
denly there was a tall young African standing at the foot of my bed. 

I sat up, looking a question, and he said, “You are a musician?” 
His face was earnest, and I noticed he held a battered cassette tape 
in his hand. I knew what was coming, but collected myself, nodded, 
and shook his extended hand. 

“They told me out there,” he pointed toward the bar, “that one of 
the other bicycle riders was a musician. Maybe you could help me 
out.” 

I thought of the old joke: 'Sure, how did you get in?’ but only 
asked him “How?” 

“Well, I am a songwriter, and I thought you could help me be- 
come successful. Maybe you could listen to my songs, and give me 
some advice.” 

I had faced this situation a thousand times, but still hadn’t be- 
come adept at it. “Well, let’s start with what you want to be” 

“I want to be a musician.” 

“What instrument do you play?” 

“Well, I don’t exactly play anything. I just ... my friend plays a 
little guitar, and while he plays I make things up and ... sort of sing 
them. Then we record it.” 

“But you want to be a musician ?” 

'Yes,” he nodded solemnly, “that is what I want.” 

I had to smile, but tried to make it look encouraging. “Don’t you 
think that first you should learn to play?” Here was another young 
African who dreamed of having rather than doing. 

“Well, yes. But I don’t know how.” 

“The best thing would be to find a teacher, someone who can 
teach you about music, and show you how to play the guitar, or the 
piano, or whatever instrument you want to learn. Then once you 
learned how to play , you could start making your own songs.” 


138 



Neil Peart 


He nodded silently. It was starting to sound a little difficult. 
"That would take a long time.” 

“Yes, it would, but there is no fast way to learn anything as diffi- 
cult as being a musician. There is a lot to learn, and it takes many 
years.” 

I could see his enthusiasm was sinking. Then he suddenly 
brightened. “Maybe you could give me your address, and I could 
write to you for advice!” 

I summoned my feeble powers of diplomacy. “I’m afraid I 
couldn’t be any help to you. I live in Canada, a long way away, and 
already many young musicians from Canada and the United States 
send me their tapes. I get them all the time, hundreds of them. I 
can’t listen to them all, so I make it a point not to listen to any. I am 
not a record company or a producer, or even a teacher, and can’t do 
anything to really help these people. I can’t help them become suc- 
cessful; I can’t help them make the kind of music they want to make. 
I can only give them my encouragement, as I give it to you. I’m 
sorry I can’t do more.” 

'Well, I think you have given me some good advice already.” 

“I hope so. I wish I could make it easier, but it’s a difficult thing.” 

'Yes, yes, I see that it is. I thank you.” 

“Not at all. I know how hard it is to become a musician any- 
where, and it’s probably even more difficult here, but I wish you 
luck if you decide to try.” 

And with that he went out again, leaving me feeling inadequate, 
as such an encounter always does. Other people might have handled 
it differently, maybe better. I could have listened to his tape, then 
simply said, “It sounds very promising; keep up the good work.” 
Whether or not it was true, perhaps both of us would have felt bet- 
ter. (Well, he might have, anyway.) I could have said, “Sure man, 
just leave it with me. I’ll check it out,” and thrown it away. Or I 
could have said, “Go away kid, you bother me.” But I’d tried to be 
honest, and as is often the case, being honest didn’t feel as good as it 
ought to. 


139 



The Masked Rider 


The town of Jakiri lay over the next hill, just around the next 
bend on the red-dust road. Rather than ride the rest of the way into 
town, and wait for the others amid a crowd of staring eyes, I parked 
my bike by a tree and lay down in the shade. From my distant van- 
tage point I admired Jakiri’s hillside setting, pale houses dominated 
by a huge Catholic church in gray stone — a church presided over, 
David’s notes indicated, by a “sour father.” 

Tb look at my immediate surroundings, I might have been rest- 
ing by a country road on a summer day in southern Ontario, or the 
American Midwest. Across from me a line of evergreens, cedar-like 
with soft tufts of foliage, bordered a field where the wind blew 
waves through the yellow grass. As I lay back, the sun winked 
through the leaves overhead. A swallow flitted by, a ladybug crawled 
across my hand, and cattle lowed from a distant valley. I might have 
been on a country road in North America — except for where I’d 
been, where I was going, and how I felt. 

The day had begun in misery. I awoke in the middle of the night 
with a vicious wrestling match in my guts. Doubled over and 
wracked by cramps, I lay in the dark writhing and stifling my 
groans. After two hours of grinding spasms and cold sweats, I was 
obliged to stumble down the dark hall to the “bathroom,” to squat 
amid the stench and squalor. My intestines were treated to a good 
cleaning-out, a complete purge. My journal described it thus: “Un- 
leashed a load of fury.” 

Drained and weak, I staggered back to the room and slept fit- 
fully until dawn. Then I was up to “unleash” once more, pack my 
bike, and push off into the cool morning, feeling bad. Our route con- 
tinued east along the Ring Road, an urban-sounding, and perhaps 
rather grandiose name for the dusty track which pounded my bi- 
cycle, swallowed my wheels, and did my troubled stomach no good 
at all. Elephant grass bordered the road in fifteen-foot walls, leading 
across the Ndop Plain toward the green hills which marked its east- 
ern border. 

My mood was lifted somewhat by a little more varied bird life 
than usual. White Cattle Egrets picked at the fields, and a big chest- 
nut-colored Coucal made its characteristically awkward flight from 
the road in front of me. Even more awkward was a black sparrow- 
sized Whydah trailing a pair of foot-long tail feathers which made it 
look more like a tropical fish than a bird. 


140 



Neil Peart 


The rest of the route to Jakiri had been a mirror-image of the 
day before, twenty-seven miles of dirt and big hills. The same mod- 
est distance on paved roads might have been covered easily in two 
hours, three at most, but each of those days had demanded nearly 
six hours of real struggle. By the time I parked under the tree over- 
looking Jakiri, I was worn and battered and feeling like hell. Wait- 
ing for Elsa was no problem; I was glad to lay down for awhile. 
Leonard soon caught up and lay back in the shade beside me, but 
eventually we became restless and pedaled the rest of the way into 
Jakiri. 

Jakiri’s few streets radiated from a roundabout, a circle of stones 
in the red dirt surrounded by low shops, a bar, and clay-block 
houses. Like us and our bicycles, the metal roofs were rusty-red 
from the dust thrown up by the trucks and minibuses which plied 
the Ring Road. The dust gave the impression of a desert crossroads, 
an oasis in reverse — an island of parched dirt amid the forested 
hills. 

Leonard and I parked in front of a store, sitting on a bench with 
bottles of warm Pamplemousse. Fifteen or twenty local lads crowded 
around, but their curiosity was directed more at the bicycles than at 
us. A Sunday parade of colorfully-dressed women with their 
prayerbooks strolled by, or alit from the dust-coated minibuses. 

Always the women doing everything — going to church, carrying 
things on their heads, working in the fields, cooking in the eating- 
houses, selling in the markets. What on earth did the men do all the 
time? (I know, as little as possible.) In contrast to that, in Jakiri a 
few men in Islamic robes strolled by, yet none of their wives. Per- 
haps the Islamic women and the Christian men were kept locked up 
at home on Sundays. Or got together for a party. 

A boy in a Michael Jackson T-shirt encouraged another bizarre 
imagining, as I pictured that hero of world youth driving into Jakiri 
in a white Testarossa convertible (actually, he couldn’t have driven it 
over those roads — maybe they brought it in a truck), to delight 
these remote admirers, who would never have the privilege of pay- 
ing fifty dollars to sit in the outer reaches of a football stadium. Or 
be able to pay a surgeon to carve away their African features. 


141 



The Masked Rider 


Jakiri’s Auberge (inn) was another low, metal-roofed place, and 
like the Happy and the Festival before it, more saloon than inn. As 
we entered the deserted bar in front we were assailed by blaring 
music, a distorted cacophony playing for no one. David told us that 
when they saw him ride up they’d first cranked up the music, and 
then talked to him about rooms. Perhaps it was the customary wel- 
come for travelers, or to give the place an air of gaiety and celebra- 
tion. In either case, it failed. 

My turn for a room to myself, one of four tiny “guest” rooms in 
back of the bar — once again more likely supplied to bar patrons for 
short-term use. A big number “4” was scrawled in chalk on the 
rough plywood door, and I turned the long old-fashioned key, pushed 
open the door, and bumped my head. At the other end of the blue- 
walled cell was another doorway, where I bumped my head again, so 
eager was I to inspect my very own bathroom. 

A stained toilet was a welcome sight, though of course there was 
no toilet paper — a commodity still in frequent demand, and the roll 
I carried with me was shrinking. A sink hung out from the wall, but 
it had no faucet handles. An ancient shower-head stuck out of the 
ceiling, and, standing back, I turned the tap on the wall. Nothing. I 
unpacked a pair of pliers from my toolkit and turned the faucet on 
the sink. Nothing. Pulled the chain on the toilet. Nothing. 

Sigh. I stood for a moment with my hand on the chain, head 
down in abject discouragement, while the ceaseless music rattled 
the walls. From outdoors, the roar of a diesel generator competed 
with the roar of the music inside. Anger welled up, and I turned 
quickly, banged my head on the door, swore, crossed the room, 
banged my head again, swore louder, and stalked into the bar. A 
young guy sat nodding his head to the music beside the flickering 
meters of an amplifier. I shouted at him, a little louder than neces- 
sary, “CAN YOU TURN THE WATER ON?” 

He turned in shock and cowered visibly, eyes bugging as he 
hunched away outside. I returned to Room 4 — ducking this time — 
and stretched out on the spongy bed. A few minutes later, I heard 
the toilet tank filling with water. 


142 



Neil Peart 


At six o’clock next morning we pedaled through a silent Jakiri. 
David led the way out of town, his white helmet seeming to glow in 
the half-light of dawn. Since we would be spending another night at 
the Auberge , we had left our panniers in the rooms, and the bikes 
felt light and nimble. Our destination was Kumbo, a market-town 
twenty-three kilometers farther along the Ring Road (and not to be 
confused with Kumba, the hell-hole). 

Elsa had chosen to stay behind and rest, so the four of us made 
unusually good time, though the road was a recurring nightmare of 
dust, stones, and steep hills. My stomach was better, but since I had 
eaten so little the previous day, it was also very empty , and often dis- 
tracted me from the torments of the road and the pleasures of the 
view. 

From the hilltops I looked down into green valleys dotted with 
silver roofs, and the red road snaking across the valley floor toward 
the far side. Once again, it was hard to say which was worse — the 
panting, jarring struggles upward, or the breathless, jolting high- 
wire act of the descents. On balance, I guess I hated them both. 

Cranking up the last long hill, graced by a suddenly paved sur- 
face, we rolled into Kumbo a little before eight o’clock, just as the 
sun was gathering strength. The houses and shops were spread 
around a hilltop, narrow winding streets running down from a 
roundabout. Like Jakiri, the town was dominated by a massive 
Catholic church, and dwarfed by its stone tower and belfry. 

We stopped for an omelette and Nescafe in a tiny chop-house, 
where a local schoolteacher gave us directions to the Fon’s palace. At 
the end of a steep lane we came to a wide square walled in by build- 
ings, and stopped, uncertain which way to turn. I leaned against my 
bicycle and looked around at the strange, decaying arrangement of 
buildings, once grand but now falling into ruin. The walls of the 
square were weathered stone and crumbling plaster, the scarred 
surfaces pierced by intricate doorways. I laid my bike on the ground 
to walk up for a closer look. The frames and lintels were elaborately 
carved in dimensional relief, like totem poles, each one a different 
pattern of humanoid faces, geometric symbols, and guardian spirits. 

As ever, a crowd of small boys seemed to materialize out of no- 
where, and gathered around to stare at us and our bicycles. By now 
it seemed as if the same group of boys was following us wherever we 


143 



The Masked Rider 


went, like Grateful Dead fans. One of the Fon’s wives must have 
heard of our arrival, and came out to greet us (this Fon had a mere 
eighty wives — the Fon of Bafut had ninety-seven — but at least 
this one didn’t charge admission). 

We left our bikes in a courtyard and followed her to a small 
room, where a row of chairs faced a modest throne. She told us to sit 
down; the Fon would see us soon. A pair of tall carvings stood in the 
corner, male figures with friendly faces and calm Buddha- smiles. A 
set of framed certificates hung on the wall, commendations from the 
Boy Scouts, a signed portrait of Lord Baden-Powell, and, even more 
curiously, a personal blessing from the Pope to the “Fon of Nso” — 
who was a Muslim. Every potentate we encountered seemed to have 
been similarly “blessed,” and I found it strange to think of the pope 
sitting down to sign all these autographs for the heathens and infi- 
dels of Africa. 

A young man entered the room, neat and professional-looking in 
a beige leisure-suit and a brown cap. He introduced himself as a 
Prince, the Fon’s son, secretary, driver, and translator, and sat be- 
hind the desk as the Fon himself made his entrance. David re- 
minded us of the protocols before a chief: No shaking his hand 
(people avoid direct contact with the Fon, who is considered too po- 
tent, and also he is protected from the taint of a commoner) and, for 
some reason it was taboo to cross your legs. 

But still, if we knew what not to do, we didn’t know what to do. 
Stand with heads down, sit with eyes averted, or bow and scrape 
and grovel? There was a last-second meeting of anxious eyes be- 
tween Annie, Leonard, and me, but it was too late — the Fon was in 
the room. I sat awaiting a cue from David, but he gave no sign, so I 
watched the Prince, hoping for an eloquent signal of appropriate be- 
havior. He was no use either, looking the other way. So there we sat 
like kids in the Principal’s office, while the stout, white-robed Fon 
moved regally to his throne. (And I was sure he looked at us point- 
edly. I wished I knew what to do.) 

Later I learned how it ought to be done. You are preceded by a 
retainer, you clap your hands to attract the Fon’s attention, and 
wait demurely until it is granted. You don’t sit unless he invites you 
to, and when you address him you avert your eyes, bow your head, 
and cover your mouth with a hand. So, we did everything wrong — 
but he was still nice to us. 


144 



Neil Peart 


The Fon wore a headscarf of small black-and-white checks (the 
“tea towel” variety of burnouse like Yasir Arafat wears) and his per- 
fect white robe reached down to his ankles. His face was dark and 
wrinkled, cheeks swollen by a beaming smile which displayed his 
even teeth and crinkled his eyes until they nearly disappeared. This 
was no ceremonial mask — this was for real, a warm, friendly, and 
welcoming expression of joy-in-life which charmed me immediately. 
'Louis Armstrong,’ I thought to myself, remembering an old photo of 
Satchmo wearing the biggest smile known to man. The comparison 
seemed apt — the same roundness in the Fon’s features, and the 
breadth and permanence of his fabulous smile. Even his lips had the 
swollen look of a trumpeter’s embouchure. So perfect and symmetri- 
cal were his teeth that I began to think they might be false. But no 
matter; that smile wasn’t. It was the kind of face which appeared at 
rest, at ease, when wearing a wide smile. 

While David described our journey, the Prince translated, and 
the Fon seemed enthusiastic and interested in where we had been 
and where we were going. He asked many questions about the bi- 
cycles, what luggage we carried, what spare parts, how we repaired 
breakdowns. He told us he had ridden bicycles as a boy, and later 
had been fond of motorcycles, but — he spread his hands as the 
Prince spoke for him — now that he was Fon, the people did not 
want to see him on a motorcycle. His Satchmo-smile widened as we 
laughed at his little joke. 

I asked about the miniature Canadian flag on his desk, and the 
Prince told me that Canadians had installed the town’s water sys- 
tem, and so were their good friends. Annie asked if the Fon spoke 
English, and was told that he understood it a little, but only spoke 
his tribal language, Lanso, and 'Pidgin English’ (a scrambled colo- 
nial variant, something like the Jamaican patois). He was only the 
second Fon ever to embrace Islam, after his father, and had earned 
the Muslim honorific Al Hadj by making the pilgrimage to Mecca. 
Annie asked shyly if we might be permitted to photograph the Fon, 
and he graciously consented. 

The Prince led us outside to a small courtyard which served as 
the Fon’s audience chamber. On a low dais at one end stood three 
chairs, each of them hewn from a single section of log. Legs, arms, 
and backs were carved into animal icons, human figures and faces. 
The stonework on the floor was laid out in the design of the spider 


145 



The Masked Rider 


icon, the symbol of wisdom, and when the Fon settled himself in the 
middle chair and flashed his ivory smile for our cameras, he put his 
dusty lace-ups on a footrest carved into a double-headed leopard, the 
symbol of the Fon’s power. Traditionally, he had the right to the pelt 
of any leopard slain within his kingdom (scarce these days) and it 
was believed that a Fon could sometimes change into a leopard, just 
as it was accepted that the leopard could change to human form. 

Decorating each of the steps leading up to the Fon’s dais were 
stickers, reading: 


PAUL BIYA 

Mon President 
My President 

but it was only later, when I had the photographs developed, that I 
noticed the statue in the corner. A carved wooden figure, covered in 
multi-colored beadwork, held aloft a bust of a neatly-groomed man 
in a gray suit, white shirt, and tie. Closer scrutiny revealed the man 
in the gray suit to be Paul Biya, and the features on the figure sup- 
porting him were suspiciously similar to a slender Louis Armstrong 
— or a younger version of our Fon. 

As is so often true, these small details, unnoticed at the time, 
told a big story. They showed that behind the Satchmo smile worked 
an astute political mind; that to be a Fon in the late ’80s was not un- 
like the balancing-act of becoming and remaining pope. Scheming 
and machinating between sacred and secular, dominance and sub- 
mission, Allah and Biya, chiefs like our friend the Fon of Nso had to 
tread that fine line. They had to be seen as absolute rulers among 
their own people, in a traditionally feudal background; yet they had 
to submit to a western-style central government in a modern African 
strong-arm republic. Give obeisance to the President, but hold the 
respect of your people. As the Fon of Bafut’s wife had told us when 
we asked her what happened if a Fon was unjust, “Oh ... things can 
happen ...” Yes, things can happen. The people can poison you, and 
the government can shoot you. With those stickers and that carved 
tribute to the president, the Fon demonstrated his loyalty and devo- 
tion to the central forces, and at the same time kept himself out of 


146 



Neil Peart 


trouble. The government could think, 'Now there’s a harmless fig- 
urehead setting a good example for the peasants/ while his people 
could think, 'See how our wise Fon gives lip service to the Feds, but 
does what he wants/ 

The Fon sent us on a tour of the palace, guided by the Prince. 
The main buildings surrounding the courtyard were built of stone, 
many with glass windows framed in blue and white, and European 
paneled doors. A lawn-chair of blue and white vinyl seemed an un- 
likely detail, as did the calendar from a German bank, but these ac- 
corded with the other anomalies — the Fon’s lace-up shoes, the Ca- 
nadian flag, an old-fashioned telephone-in-a-box on the desk. In 
spite of these false notes, the decor remained unmistakably African, 
tall wooden figures and chairs everywhere, carved and painted 
doorframes against the stone walls, and the combination of wood 
and stone was nicely organic. 

In contrast, the Fon’s wives lived in monotonous rows of hand- 
made brick huts with metal roofs. A network of swept earth path- 
ways ran among them, but they and the shuttered houses were si- 
lent and deserted. The Prince told us that the wives were away in 
the country, working on the Fon’s coffee farm. On one of the 
unpainted shutters a poem was printed in chalk. 


WHEN LIFE IS FULL 
OF UPS AND DOWNS 
WE SAY IT IS ARROW 
OF GOD 

ANY ATTEMPT TO 
ACHIVE SUCCESE 
THINGS FALL APART 
BUTATTHE END 
OF NO SUCCESE 
WE ARE NO LONGER 
AT EASE 


I was intrigued not only by the pessimistic insight and idiosyn- 
cratic spelling, but because only the previous day I had started read- 
ing a novel called Things Fall Apart, by the Nigerian author Chinua 


147 



The Masked Rider 


Aehebe. From its introduction, I knew that the title had come from a 
poem by W.B. Yeats, and that it formed a trilogy with two other nov- 
els, No Longer At Ease, and Arrow of God; so those titles had been 
the inspiration of this poet’s muse. And too, the poem’s message re- 
flected the themes in Achebe’s novels, which deal with the changes 
this century has wrought in Nigerian life, and by extension, in West 
African life. I couldn’t quite make out the signature after the poem, 
but it sure looked as if it said "Mom.” 

The largest building of all was the Fon’s ceremonial chamber, 
which stood apart from the others. It was square, built of upright 
poles with mud plastered between them, and a heavy thatched roof 
in the shape of a pyramid. Ib my surprise, we were permitted to go 
inside, where the tribal rituals and death ceremonies were per- 
formed. As we ducked through the low doorway I felt a tingle of ex- 
citement. 

Like many sacred places, it was not in itself a spectacular sight. 
As my eyes adjusted to the dimness I made out a ring of stones sur- 
rounding a long-dead fire, a few dusty benches and carved stools, 
that was all. But I thought I felt something. Maybe it was just my 
own anticipation, or knowing that it was a forbidden place; those 
could have been the sources of my excitement. But I think a place 
does become imbued with the magic of what has transpired in it. I 
have felt the power of the great boulders of Stonehenge, the de- 
serted rows of consoles at Mission Control in Cape Kennedy, or the 
empty stage in a concert hall. And in the Fon’s ceremonial hut, I 
could imagine that fire glowing red on the stones as it burned low in 
the night, flickering on a circle of masks, voices chanting in un- 
known tongues, drums throbbing. 

We emerged into the sunlight again and walked back along the 
path between the wives’ huts. I looked back and saw the Fon watch- 
ing us, leaning easily against a dusty black Peugeot with his arms 
folded across his chest, and smiling that smile. He joined us as we 
returned to the courtyard, and stood for a few minutes inspecting 
our bikes and watching us prepare to depart. David presented the 
Fon with a Bicycle Africa newsletter and a cycling calendar, and was 
rewarded with a smile of thanks. 

Just then the Prince reappeared, and presented us with our gift 
from the Fon — a live chicken. The terrified bird flapped and 


148 



Neil Peart 


squawked as the Prince shoved it into an open-weave basket the size 
of a shopping bag. The poor chicken continued to cluck in outrage as 
David fastened the basket onto the rack of his bicycle, and the four 
of us were laughing in pleasure and puzzlement — what were we 
going to do with a live chicken? But we had to be gracious. 

We thanked the Fon for his hospitality and his gift, shook hands 
with the Prince (but not the Fon), and straddled our bicycles. The 
Fon stood in the courtyard watching us go, still beaming that infec- 
tious smile. 


Feeling elevated by our audience with the Fon, and cruelly 
amused by the occasional clucks from the chicken on David’s rack, 
we headed for the Kumbo market to buy some meat. We’d met the 
local Peace Corps volunteer the previous night, and she had offered 
to make us hamburgers if we brought back the meat. After weeks of 
rice with junk on it, some homemade burgers sounded like a fine 
idea. 

Near the market we heard a loud call of “Hey White!” 

“Hey Black!” David called back. 

“What you doing in Black Africa?” came the shouted response. 

“Penance,” I said quietly. 

“Just visiting!” called out Leonard. 

We wheeled into the truck-park outside the market, dark faces 
turning to stare at us. Small pickup trucks and minibuses were 
parked haphazardly, loading and unloading produce and passengers. 
We leaned our bikes against a big tree in the middle, and David 
went off to shop for some meat. He disappeared down a crowded pas- 
sageway and left the rest of us to guard the bikes. “And the 
chicken,” he reminded me with a smile and an admonishing finger. 
<c With my life,” I promised. 

And for once I really felt as if our stuff needed guarding. A 
crowd had immediately closed around us, fifty scowling, shuffling 
youths muttering among themselves as they slouched ever closer — 
too close. No smiles, no greetings, just a dense circle of unfriendly 
faces giving us and our bicycles appraising looks. Fingers reached 


149 



The Masked Rider 


out to touch the shifters, brake levers, handlebar bags. I stood as 
near as I could to the bikes and put a nervous hand over my 
beltpack, feeling unwelcome, conspicuous, and an easy mark. My 
eyes flicked from David's bicycle to mine and back again, then to the 
crowd that seemed so menacing, trying to watch everywhere at 
once. 

Annie giggled nervously, saying, “Not a very friendly bunch, are 
they?” 

“Just like at home,” I said, “guys with nothing better to do, act- 
ing tough and hanging around the mall.” 

Leonard laughed, “Hanging around the mall — Yeah.” But then 
he abandoned me, pushing his bike through the crowd to inspect 
some of the cheap cassette players on sale at a nearby stall. 

Annie turned to me, “Do you mind if I leave my bike here?” 

I looked around at the mob of scowling faces and considered 
whether I wanted to be left completely alone to watch over three 
bikes at once, to defend them against an imagined thief. I decided I 
felt uneasy enough as it was — maybe even a little paranoid. How 
simple it would have been for one of those sour-faced punks to grab 
something, even a whole bicycle, and disappear into the hostile 
crowd. I could have done nothing. 

“I'd rather you didn't,” I said to her. 

“Oh,” she said, nodding and seeming surprised. “Oh, okay then.” 

So I stood there, tense and vigilant, wishing David would come 
back so we could leave. He returned at last, holding up the parcel of 
meat with a wave of success. As we pedaled through the roundabout 
and left Kumbo behind, I heard another shout of “Hey White!” and 
turned to face the sneering caller. “Don’t call me names,” I snapped, 
with new insight into the ugliness of racism, and he watched me in 
stunned silence as I pedaled by. 

On the road back to Jakiri I bounced and pounded along beside 
David, feeling better in mind and body, though sorry for the chicken 
squashed into the basket on David's rack. However, the object of my 
pity accepted its punishment quietly for the most part, only occa- 
sionally offering a cluck of protest. My own protests were less re- 
strained — breathing out curses every time I took an especially vio- 
lent pounding. 


150 



Neil Peart 


In the late afternoon we went to visit Kim, the Peace Corps vol- 
unteer, at her little bungalow. Kim was twenty, strawberry-blonde 
and freckled, and was near the end of her second year as a math 
teacher at the local school. She told us she was one of 160 Peace 
Corps people scattered around Cameroon, and had enjoyed her time 
in Jakiri, despite its remoteness and the odd bout of malaria — one 
of which had put her in a Yaounde hospital. Guests were rare; she'd 
even put on makeup for us. 

An elephant-head mask and a gamelan (thumb-piano) decorated 
her living-room wall, and a line of books, mostly well-used paper- 
backs, stretched across the top of a cabinet. No doubt inherited from 
other Peace Corps volunteers, they offered an inviting and varied 
collection of good reading: Faulkner, Steinbeck, Tblkien, Dickens, 
Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance , Atlas Shrugged , Dune, 
Out of Africa, Great American Short Stories, as well as a row of col- 
lege textbooks. With little else for entertainment — no television, no 
radio, no newspapers, no cinema — books were an important re- 
source among the Peace Corps people. While glancing through one 
of the newsletters from Peace Corps Cameroon, I noticed the promi- 
nence given to book reviews, and the volunteers even advertised for 
specific books. “Wanted: The Sun Also Rises and Tender Is The 
Night. Can trade for something you want. Brian, posted in 
Yaounde." 

Two other guests joined us for dinner. One was a Peace Corps 
supervisor visiting from Bamenda, named Chris. He told us he was 
from Dallas, though somehow he had escaped with barely a trace of 
Texas in his speech. (Probably a CIA cover.) The other guest was a 
tall Cameroonian man of about forty, named Paul, who was dressed 
in a knee-length cotton shirt and embroidered cap. Paul's relation to 
Kim was unclear, but he seemed to be a kind of “houseboy emeritus,'' 
as she had one of her students to do the fetching and carrying. Paul 
had been born in Jakiri, then had lived in Nigeria for many years, 
though now he admitted to us that he hadn't liked it there (“too 
crowded”) and was glad to be back in Cameroon. 

Our visit to the Fon of Nso sparked much of our conversation, 
the four of us still excited about our reception, and delighted by the 
hospitality the Fon had shown us. We told how we had been allowed 


151 



The Masked Rider 


to enter the Fon’s ceremonial chamber, and the conversation turned 
to juju. Kim mentioned that the masked spirits sometimes appeared 
in the middle of Jakiri, causing the local people to disappear from 
the streets in a panic. "I must admit,” she said, “they even frighten 
me. My mother visited me here last year, and you should have seen 
her face when we walked out of a shop to see one of them running at 
us!” 

Paul nodded thoughtfully, and said, “Yes, there are some I am 
very afraid of, but others are not to be feared.” 

“Some of them are even funny,” Kim said, “like jesters.” 

Annie made a puzzled look. “But what do they doT 
David, the most knowledgeable about Africa, took up the expla- 
nation. “In one way they are agents of social order, kind of like po- 
lice. The dancers are members of the Fon’s secret society, and each 
mask represents a certain character, usually an ancestor. Some of 
them are fierce and others are kind of comical, but all of them are 
supposed to possess magic powers. When they put on their masks 
and costumes, people believe they actually become the ancestral 
spirit.” 

“Yes,” Paul said, “with the mask they are no longer human.” 

“I think they must drink a lot of palm wine before they come 
out, maybe even take some kind of drugs,” Kim said. “They are sup- 
posed to have amazing strength.” 

David went on, “In the old days they had unlimited power in the 
village. They could beat up or even kill a bad man. The Fon didn’t 
have to look like a mean guy, and it also kept the punishment 
anonymous, like our old hooded executioners. These days the masks 
are not so powerful, but they are still feared.” 

Kim emerged from the kitchen bearing baskets full of golden 
fried potatoes, then a platter of hamburger patties and sliced rolls. 
The conversation halted, and all of us gathered around the table to 
admire this western vision: burgers, fries, mustard, tomatoes, on- 
ions. I felt a twinge of cultural guilt, the way I had once felt going 
into a Burger King in Paris, like a typical North American tourist — 
but I put it aside. I’d earned this. We all had. Silence reigned in pi- 
ous devotion to the god of Burger, until Leonard and I had split the 
last one and left the platter bare. 

“Wow,” I said to Kim, “that was great. You should start a burger 
joint here in Jakiri.” 


152 



Neil Peart 


“Yeah,” Leonard said. 'You could call it The Burger Fon.” 

By the time the meal was done darkness was coming on, and we 
soon rose to go. We said goodbye to Paul and Chris, and offered our 
thanks to Kim for a rare treat. With the highest token of tribute we 
could muster, David presented her with our chicken. 

After a brief interval of delicious quiet back in Room 4, the gen- 
erator came to life with a clanking roar, and the music from the bar 
blasted through the walls and throbbed in my head. Before leaving 
home, I had laughed to see “earplugs” on David’s suggested packing 
list, but now I saw their use and their wisdom. Quiet nights in 
Cameroon. Occasional cramps still twisted my insides, my throat 
still ached, and homesickness and non-specific depression continued 
to sap my spirits. I tried to close my mind to the relentless generator 
and the distorted noise from the bar, and opened Dear Theo. And 
once again, poor Vincent echoed my mood in a letter to his brother: 

I long to hear from you, for notwithstanding the beautiful 
scenery I feel gloomy. I am overcome by a feeling of discour- 
agement and despair. Though I wish it were not so, I am ex- 
tremely sensitive as to what is said of my work, as to what 
impression I make personally. If I meet with distrust, if I stand 
alone, I feel a certain void which cripples my initiative. What I 
want is an intelligent sincerity, which is not vexed by failures. 

Two persons must believe in each other, and feel that the 
work can be done and must be done; in that way they are 
tremendously strong. They must keep up each other’s cour- 
age. 

I take it deeply to heart that I do not get on better with 
people in general; it quite worries me, because on such con- 
tacts depends so much of my success in carrying out my 
work. 

When I look around me, everything seems too miser- 
able, too insufficient, too dilapidated. We are having gloomy 
days of rain now, and when I come to the corner of the garret 
where I have settled down, it is curiously melancholy there; 
through one single glass pane the light falls on an empty 
colour-box, on a bundle of brushes the hair of which is quite 
worn down. It is so strangely melancholy that it has, luckily, 
almost a comical aspect — enough not to make one cry over 
it. 


153 




The Sultan s happy-laughing throne , all in red , Wwe, and yellow beadwork . 
Sultan’s Palace, Foumban. 


754 





th goo4 hart 


When people say that a person has a “good heart,” they often re- 
ally mean 'Tie’s an idiot, but harmless.” That kind of snotty put- 
down, damning with faint praise, needs no introduction. Like “she 
has a nice personality,” “nice legs, shame about the face,” or that 
classic character, the whore with a heart of gold. 

But when a person is described as “good-hearted,” the implica- 
tion is different, inferring that on top of other sterling qualities, the 
person also remains compassionate and gracious. Intelligent and ac- 
complished, say, but also possessing that much rarer quality — a 
good heart. 

Annie, for example, had a good heart. I mean, Annie was good- 
hearted. Oh, she could sometimes drive a person to distraction, but 
you couldn’t really get angry at her. You felt instinctively that she 
was the kind of friend who would do anything for you, if you asked. 
Not the sort who was thoughtful — who would do something nice for 
you spontaneously — but she would willingly do you a favor, if you 
asked her to. 

But because of that quality, she assumed that everybody else 
was equally ready to serve her, if only they were asked. She’d be 
standing beside a stone wall organizing her panniers before we set 
out in the morning, and automatically start passing you her glasses 
to hold, or her water bottle, or her helmet, rather than simply sit- 
ting them on the wall beside her, or on the ground. Little things, but 
continually repeated. Without thinking anything of it, she was al- 
ways recruiting others in unnecessary ways. “Can you hold this?” 
“Can I borrow that?” “Will you do this for me?” Although you 
couldn’t get angry at her, as the days and weeks passed it grew a 
little wearying. 

Like the time back in Mutengene when she was waiting for us 
to leave, with her bike stacked in front of everyone else’s. That scene 
was repeated more than once. Or the morning we left Buea. Annie 


155 




The Masked Rider 


had neglected to buy enough water for the day, and asked me if she 
could “buy” some of mine. Of course, I gave her half of my spare 
bottle — but then both of us had to worry about stopping to find 
more water. Or on the road to Mbouda: Leonard and I stopped for a 
break, and Annie came riding up and sat beside us under the tree. 
“Heh-heh ... it’s hot ... does anybody have anything to drink?” And 
then, “Um ... does anybody have anything to eat?” Soon she was 
resting comfortably, reading David's book, drinking Leonard's water, 
and eating my food. 

David remarked on the same thing another time, in Bamenda. 
Annie had been out all afternoon wandering around the shops and 
the market, then came to our door in the evening, as we were going 
out, and asked David if he could pick up a bottle of water for her. 
David came back into the room shaking his head and muttering. I 
began to call her “Blanche Dubois” in my mind — always depending 
upon the kindness of strangers. 

I know other people who are like that, and they are so opposite 
to me that I often find I like them very much — despite my exas- 
peration. It was that way with Annie. Sure, she could be thoughtless 
of others in little ways, but it was an innocent and blameless kind of 
true thoughtlessness. She simply didn’t think about it. Her 
thoughts, like her speech, seemed to be halting and insecure, filled 
with gaps and ellipses ... um ... heh-heh ... yeah. 

And if Annie could be thoughtlessly inconsiderate, so too could 
her “good heart” lead her to the opposite extreme. When the oppor- 
tunity to be nice was plainly thrust upon her, she was gullible and 
could be exploited. In Jakiri, one of the local youths was eager to try 
out her bike, and soon cajoled her into lending it to him “for fifteen 
minutes.” Fifteen minutes passed, then an hour, then two hours, un- 
til she started to worry. 

The rest of us scoured the town on our bikes looking for it, but 
when we returned to the Auberge with no news, for the first time I 
saw Annie lose her composure. Her eyes misted over behind the 
thick glasses, and she pounded the wall, blurting out “I’m so stupid !” 
No one said a word. Eventually, on our way to Kim’s house for din- 
ner, we found the guy — in front of a bar, straddling Annie’s bike 
and jawing with his friends. 

So Annie’s thoughtlessness was never arrogant or cruel; she was 
inconsiderate more-or-less accidentally. But Elsa was different. Her 


156 



Neil Peart 


heart seemed full of bitterness, and the mask of "humanitarianism” 
she affected couldn’t hide her basic contempt for humans. Or, per- 
haps she really did love humanity, but just didn’t like people very 
much. 

Maybe she hadn’t always been that way. We had heard about 
her two sons and her grandchildren, but she didn’t talk about her 
husband — ex-husband, we gathered. Once she told us a story about 
hiking in the Sierras with another woman, then added drily "now 
she’s my husband’s wife.” Maybe a long-harbored bitterness had 
hardened her heart. Maybe she used to be different. 


We left Jakiri when it was barely light, beginning a forty-three 
mile ride down a steep plateau from the highlands, then across a 
sweltering plain and into the city of Foumban. The first part of the 
ride was downhill, yes, but it was that kind of downhill — a bounc- 
ing, churning, heart-in-the-throat kind of daredevil descent which 
left my hands aching from straining at the brakes, my muscles 
cramped from the tension of the nervous balancing act, and my 
whole body stiff from the constant jarring. At the end of each of 
those four days on the Ring Road, I’d noticed that my muscles were 
sore, not from exertion , but from absorbing the constant shocks and 
body-blows transmitted up from the pedals, the saddle, and the 
handlebars. 

When the road finally leveled off, the five of us spread out along 
the dirt track once more, rolling across a treeless savanna. Just 
ahead of me, halfway up a particularly rutted hill, Annie stopped to 
take a photograph. She didn’t trouble to move aside, but stopped on 
the only navigable strip of the road, and as I struggled to go around 
her I went careening through the dust and gravel, nearly tumbling 
into the ditch. "Thank you, neighbor!” I called out. 

Startled, she lowered the camera. "Oh ... heh-heh ... um, sorry!” 
As with so many good-hearted people, sarcasm was lost on Annie. I 
bounced on, my eyes raised to the heaven of Good Hearts. 

By eight o’clock the heat was already becoming oppressive, and 
we stopped in a village for a makeshift breakfast, pushing our bikes 
into the deserted market. Spirits seemed low among our little group 
as we nibbled at the oranges, bananas, bread, and peanut butter. 


157 



The Masked Rider 


No one said much, or offered the usual little jokes or comments, not 
even any remarks about the horrors of the road. David seemed espe- 
cially silent. There was no apparent reason for this mood, at least 
not yet, but it seemed to hang like a pall. Everyone was in a bad 
mood. 

This condition should not be shared; a bad mood is a sullen, soli- 
tary state, which has no real cause, and no real cure either. It just 
has to go away. A bad mood is not like misery, or even depression — 
it does not love company. It is not to be shared, and no improvement 
is gained by letting others have some of it. Only bitterness or unin- 
tended hurt. And if two bad moods collide, there will be trouble. 

Also unlike other negative dispositions, this is a responsive 
state; a bad mood only exists in relation to other people. Although I 
am not often stricken with this condition, I have noticed that I often 
don’t even know I’m in a bad mood until I come into contact with 
others. Then suddenly I notice that I have an urge to be surly, and 
don’t wish to “open up” to people. And the barriers go up. If I’m on a 
concert tour, say, and spend the early part of a day alone in my hotel 
room, I might feel fine — reading, writing, watching TV contentedly. 
But as soon as I have to go out into the world I discover, by my re- 
sponse to others, that it is a zero-tolerance day. I fold into myself; 
friends seem annoying and self-satisfied, strangers seem invasive 
and contemptible, and I just want to be left alone. Sometimes it 
helps to go for a bike ride by myself. 

So when we set off again, I pedaled ahead and rode out in front 
of the group, letting everyone keep their moods to themselves, and 
gradually increasing the distance between us. The plateau dimin- 
ished to a hazy rampart behind me, and all around the brown grass 
was peppered with low trees, like the East African savanna. The 
only sounds came from my bicycle, the dust-caked chain grinding 
through the derailleurs and around the gears, tires crunching 
against the stones. The panniers banged against the rack, and an 
unidentifiable rattle came from somewhere down on the frame. Time 
was measured only by the occasional passing of a minibus, speeding 
by me in a roar of tossed stones and trailing a long plume of weight- 
less dust. When I saw a reddish cloud approaching from in front or 
behind, once an hour or so, I pulled the bandana up over my face 
until long after the minibus had disappeared, and the dust had 
settled. I sipped at my dwindling water, but my mouth was immedi- 


158 



Neil Peart 


ately parched again, dust grinding in my teeth. My skin felt gritty 
and salt-sticky, the sweat evaporating instantly into the dry air. 

When I finally reached the outskirts of Foumban, I stopped in 
the shade of an abandoned truck to wait for Leonard, then together 
we rode into town. Spotting a drink shop behind a petrol station, we 
pulled in to investigate. Wonder of wonders, the drinks were kept in 
an electric cooler, and were cold. 

Leonard wandered around the side of the building, where a 
young guy operated a “car wash” — a hose and some rags — serving 
the local taxi owners and their Peugeots, Renaults, and Nissans. Al- 
most at once Leonard was back, stripping the bags off his bike and 
pushing it away. He’d made a deal to have his bike washed for 300 
francs — only about a dollar, but probably more than the washer 
usually got for doing a whole car. Recognizing the wisdom of his 
idea, I followed Leonard’s example, stripped everything off my bi- 
cycle, and rolled it around to line up behind his. 

The car washer was about twenty, and full of the arrogance and 
confidence of youth. He wore a dirty shirt open to the waist and 
trousers rolled up to his knees. These clothes were suited to his 
work, but the car washer was one of those people who look proud 
even in rags. He wore them like an Armani suit. 

Leonard once made that comment about Elsa, how even after 
suffering through a long day of dust and sweat she always managed 
to arrive looking neat and composed. David had laughed and turned 
to Annie, eyeing her grubby dishevelment, and said: “while Annie 
looks ...” 

“Heh-heh — like somebody who doesn’t give a damn,” she fin- 
ished, with a trace of defensiveness masking as pride. How often one 
sees that reverse vanity — people who are proud about not being 
proud, or vain about not being vain. 

The car washer’s handsome face wore a permanent smirk, and 
he swaggered about his domain of cars and mud, every gesture flam- 
boyantly graceful. He had a small audience of local boys who hung 
around to watch him work and serve as the laugh-track for his 
steady flow of comments. Without understanding his speech, we 
knew his offhand remarks were delivered at the expense of his 
friends, us, and the rest of the world, a world under his command. 
The only one who would never be the butt of his jokes would be him- 
self. 


159 



The Masked Rider 


When I raised my camera to take a picture of him at work on my 
bike, he twisted like a dancer to face me, then crouched with his 
knees bent and arms thrown wide, like The Jazz Singer. As soon as 
he realized I could speak a little French, he began to work his 
unsubtle wiles on me, telling me how he “needed a beer,” and could I 
“bring” him one. 

Perhaps a Coca-Cola? I suggested. 

No, he said, I don’t like Coca-Cola. I like beer. 

I laughed and nodded, and went to buy him a cold beer. 

We spotted Annie coming along the road, and I ran out to wave 
her in. We told her about the cold drinks, and as she leaned her bike 
against the wall, she asked if someone could get her one. With a wry 
smile and a little shake of my head, I went. Dear Annie. 

When I returned, I saw her trying to rub the layers of dust from 
her face with a dry bandana, while Leonard looked on and laughed 
at the futility. He suggested she start with her teeth. “Oh ... heh-heh 
... the mud-tooth.” Annie moistened the bandana and made another 
pass at her face, but this time only succeeded in smearing her 
cheeks with swirls of red mud, while Leonard and I continued our 
cruel laughter. “You guys,” she said in dismay, “do I look all right or 
what?” 

'You look fine,” I lied. 

Despite Annie’s claim that she didn’t “give a damn,” she was of- 
ten very concerned about what others thought. One time, as she 
climbed off her bike and wound the pagne around her waist, I kid- 
ded her about it, saying “One of these days you’re going to learn how 
to put those things on.” She’d laughed at first, but a few minutes 
later came up to me with a look of poignant vulnerability. “Does it 
really look okay?” I had to assure her once again that she looked 
fine. Or when we went shopping in the craft markets of Foumban, 
and I helped her make a good bargain for a small carving; when 
she’d bought it and we were walking away, she asked me for the 
third time “Do you really think it’s okay?” Yes Annie, it’s fine. 

But if Annie sometimes cared too much what others thought, 
Elsa ran to the opposite extreme. That afternoon, after we’d checked 
into the hotel, I sat down and cleaned my bicycle, oiled the chain, 
pumped up the tires, and prepared it for the next day’s ride. Elsa 
walked right by me as I sat on the floor working, but it never oc- 
curred to her that she ought to take care of those things too. Then 


160 



Neil Peart 


the following morning all of the others were out early to do the same 
maintenance on their bikes, while Elsa was the last to appear, forc- 
ing the rest of us to stand around and wait while she oiled her chain 
and pumped her tires. When it was done, she stood up and seemed 
to notice us for the first time. “Oh, are we ready to go?” Yes Elsa, we 
are. 

But, at least that day I gained some insight into the difference 
between David and me. While I bounced along the road to Foumban, 
it occurred to me that although we shared a love of cycling, we 
didn’t share the same reasons. 

There are two ways one can appreciate cycling. As a means-to- 
an-end, it is the perfect way to travel in an unfamiliar place. Fast 
enough to cover some territory, but slow enough to experience that 
territory. But as an end-in-itself, spinning the pedals and devouring 
the road is a rhythmic, exhilarating, and challenging action which 
sets the mind into a steady, soothing groove. The world is a friendly 
place from the saddle of a bicycle, and anything you can’t actually 
see from that vantage point tends to recede into unimportance. 

Even in a tense American city, people will smile at a cyclist, even 
speak to you if you’re stopped at a light, where a pedestrian or a mo- 
torist would be studiously ignored — there would be a perceived 
“threat.” By the non-cycling world, anyone silly enough to go about 
on a bicycle is viewed as a harmless eccentric, and therefore “safe” 
to talk with. Once, on my way from a Manhattan hotel to a show at 
the Meadowlands Arena in New Jersey, I cycled through Harlem to 
reach the George Washington Bridge. New Yorkers looked shocked 
when I told them about it, but I had felt safe on a bicycle, where I 
might not have in a car or on foot. 

David, though, considered cycling more a means to an end. He 
didn’t care what he had to pedal through, or over, it was simply his 
preferred way of traveling to the places he wished to visit. For me, 
the rough roads and endless buffeting distracted from what I liked 
about cycling. I missed being able to sing, or even wanting to sing, 
and I missed the rhythm of steady pedaling, the Zen state of cruis- 
ing along a flat road, the challenge of a long, slow climb, and the 
fearless rush of adrenalin that sharpens the senses on a fast de- 
scent. 

When we finally arrived at Foumban, and David asked me how 
I’d enjoyed the day’s ride, I tried to explain this to him, how I saw 


161 



The Masked Rider 


cycling as an end-in-itself rather than a means-to-an-end, but I don’t 
think he understood. He turned to Leonard, and asked him the 
same question. “And how did you like it?” 

“I liked it okay,” said the compliant Leonard. 

“Do you mean you liked it as an end-in-itself, or as a means-to- 
an-end?” inquired David, with an edge of sarcasm. We all laughed, 
but it bothered me a little that he didn’t seem to understand that I 
wasn’t complaining , but only comparing the real with the ideal. A 
common route to misunderstanding. 

But then, he’d had a tough day — a tough few weeks. He even 
confessed to Leonard and me that he was doubting whether he even 
wanted to do these trips anymore. Though he was too tactful and 
professional to directly blame Elsa, there could be no doubt of the 
cause. He told us it would be okay if he had an assistant, someone 
else to ride “sweep” at the back so that he could lead the trip, in- 
stead of following it. I knew David had every right to be in a “bad 
mood,” a rare state for him too. I just didn’t want to share in it. 

So David was down-hearted, Annie was good-hearted, Elsa was 
hard-hearted, and Leonard — oh Leonard — he had a heart of pur- 
est cool. I never heard a bitter word from him about anyone or any- 
thing, yet he seemed so self-possessed that you couldn’t tell what 
might run beneath those still waters. His impassive features may 
have reflected a genuine equanimity, or it may have been that his 
experiences in Vietnam, “working for the government,” had left him 
with a true ambivalence, a love-hatred for mankind which masked 
as humorous detachment. 

And what about me, now that I’ve dissected everyone else so 
thoroughly? What about my own “heartedness?” Do I have a good 
heart — am I good-hearted? Who do you ask? Who can you call? Any 
four people you asked would likely give you a different answer. No 
one is the same person to everyone they know. 

I guess I aim at being a “good guy,” though I’d have to admit I 
don’t always manage it. At my best I can be compassionate, thought- 
ful, and generous, but at my worst I know I have sometimes been 
mean-spirited, self-centered, and intolerant. I can be moved by the 
afflictions of a billion strangers, by the blanket of sorrow which 
sometimes seems to lay over the whole world, but individual com- 
plaints often leave me cold, especially with someone I know. Tt’s his 
own fault he hasn’t got a decent job,’ I think, 'he spent his life just 
going with the flow.’ Or: 'Hey, she married the guy!’ It’s easy to give 


162 



Neil Peart 


strangers the benefit of the doubt, to assume that their misfortunes 
are not their own fault, but when you know someone, the reasons 
for his or her difficulties can be only too apparent. As someone said, 
“There are no failures of talent, only failures of character.” 

But then, my wife accuses me of being too concerned about 
strangers, like when she vacillates over a menu while the waiter 
stands at our table expectantly, and I give her a “look.” Or when I 
spend an occasional day answering letters from people I don’t even 
know, instead of spending that time with my family. The appearance 
of twisted priorities, I suppose, but to me it seems the right way to 
be in the world — the Golden Rule. I don’t like people wasting my 
time, but I do like it when a person does something unexpectedly 
nice for me. 

But perhaps I am sometimes overly concerned about people who 
don’t really matter to me emotionally. For example, I would rather 
be early for an appointment and have to wait myself than inconve- 
nience anyone else (though I naively expect the same consideration 
in return). 

But at the other extreme, I am jealous of my time and work, and 
am sometimes short even with my friends when a phone call inter- 
rupts me in the middle of something “important” — when it’s not 
convenient to speak with them. Again, I justify it to myself, and 
maybe my friends even understand, but down in that “heart of 
hearts,” I don’t feel good about it. I am rarely down-hearted, but 
when I feel low I sometimes think, in that deep and secret place, 
that I am not a good person, and if I ever appear that way it’s only 
because I consciously try to be. My inner devil tells me that I am 
only good if I make the effort — it doesn’t come naturally. That’s a 
sobering thought. 

But then, when the darkness passes and I’m back to my normal 
height of self-esteem, I think, 'Well, is anyone really good by nature ? 
Doesn’t it have to be an exercise of will?’ Almost always, I guess, 
though there are a few people who seem to be nice automatically, 
without ever having to try. But not very many. Maybe three. 

At least wanting to be good is better than not wanting to, or 
wishing to appear good. I enjoy the feeling of giving to others with- 
out having to tell everybody about it. And all those faults — well, 
I’m working on them, trying to be more tolerant, more appreciative 
of others. I just need more time. 


163 




The Jazz Singer washing my bike. 
Foumban. 


164 




!lts pav5<* re»<* 


At 4:30 in the morning I was awakened by the muezzins wailing 
from the minarets of Foumban. This eerie call to prayer and the 
crowing roosters evoked an older, precolonial Africa, though 
Foumban itself had the Islamic flavor of North Africa: mosques with 
domes and minarets, and wrought iron star-and-cre scent fences 
among the palms. The region was still nominally ruled by a sultan, 
and Foumban had been the seat of an ancient empire founded by the 
Bamum people, who migrated to Cameroon in some unknown past. 
After driving out the original inhabitants, they had settled the area 
(an early episode of imperialist oppression). 

While touring around Foumban the previous afternoon, I had 
noticed a larger-than-life bronze statue of the previous sultan, King 
Njoya, arrayed in the Arabian Nights splendor of spherical headgear 
and flowing robes. Njoya was one of the most colorful figures in 
Cameroon history: around 1885, when his father was killed in 
battle, he succeeded to the throne, at the age of four, with his 
mother as regent. When the young sultan was old enough to take 
power himself, he set out to increase the prestige of his kingdom. 
Njoya was an open-minded ruler — since the Bamum people had no 
strong religious beliefs of their own, he investigated different reli- 
gions, even accepted Christianity for a time under the teaching of 
German missionaries, but eventually settled on Islam. Njoya devised 
a system of writing, inspired by the Germans and the Arabic script 
of the Hausa traders, and he also managed to retain his authority 
through a long period of German, British, and French colonial rule. 
The French finally deposed him in 1931, after a six-year struggle, 
and exiled him to Yaounde, where he died in 1933. 

But Njoya’s legacy has survived, even apart from the Arabian 
Nights statue. Because he encouraged and acted as patron to the 
artists and craftsmen of his kingdom, Foumban continued to be 
known as an arts center, with two museums of traditional art, and a 



165 



The Masked Rider 


street devoted to the ateliers of modern-day carvers, weavers, and 
bronze-workers. In Foumban I bought my first souvenir of 
Cameroon, a small human figure carved from a hippo tooth, said to 
be a “fetish,” to keep away evil spirits. 'Couldn’t hurt,’ I thought, 
though as the muezzins and the roosters sang me awake that morn- 
ing, I was hoping my fetish would keep away the evil roads. 

We set off through the streets of Foumban, circled the market- 
place, and rolled out of town. The grasses beside the road were gold 
in the early-morning light, mountains stretched along the horizon in 
the distance, and the open road beckoned. I accelerated away in a 
burst of adrenalin, smooth pavement under my wheels, oil on my 
chain, air in my tires, and a fetish in my panniers. 

Glancing back in my mirror, I saw another cyclist coming up fast 
— white helmet, yellow T-shirt and heavy black panniers. It was 
David, making a break for it, “ditching” Elsa for the day. When he 
rode up beside me, the smile in his beard told me he felt like I did. 
This was going to be a good day, and together we leaned into it and 
put the miles behind us. 

Our pace was slowed only by a return to regular army and po- 
lice checkpoints — the lack of roadblocks was one advantage I 
hadn’t properly appreciated on the less-traveled dirt of the Ring 
Road. But by this time we’d evolved a method: as we approached the 
tell-tale oil drums blocking half the road, we just kept on riding, 
right around the roadblock, as if they couldn’t possibly want to stop 
us. It was a method born of resentment and a certain arrogance, but 
it worked, as an imperious attitude often does. 

At the next checkpoint, however, the “breeze-through” strategy 
failed; we were called back. A policeman stood in the road, yelled 
something at us and waved us to the side. He gave us a stern look 
and demanded our passports. Another officer strolled up and casu- 
ally started snooping through my panniers. He hadn’t spoken a 
word to me or asked what was in my bags, just started unzipping 
compartments and pulling out anything that seemed interesting. I 
hated it. “Looking for something?”* I asked, in my most attitudinal 
French. 

“Non” he said gruffly, and pulled out my pocket flashlight. 

David caught my sarcasm, even if the cop didn’t, and leaned 
over and said quietly, “It’s not a good idea to piss them off when 


166 



Neil Peart 


there are others coming behind. They might get a harder time be- 
cause of it.” 

He was right, and I shut up. The officer rolled the flashlight be- 
tween his fingers as if appraising its value. With a sidelong glance 
at me (glaring back silently), he slowly and reluctantly replaced it, 
and fished deeper. I was seething, as always when someone is root- 
ing around in my stuff. Next he came out with a pair of spare tapes 
for my recorder, and gave them the same careful scrutiny. Then he 
held them out to me: “Qu’est ce que c’estT 

Between my teeth, I told him, For my magnetophone. 

'Here comes trouble/ I thought. 'Now he’ll think he’s caught a 
spy. Next he’ll ask me where the magnetophone is.’ 

But just as he asked that very question, the chief officer inter- 
rupted. He’d been leafing through my passport, then held one page 
up to his face as if to study it carefully. He waved the snooper- 
trooper away, and demanded, Where is your visa? I took back the 
passport, and saw that he had been spending all that time scrutiniz- 
ing an empty page — and sideways too. On the very next page I 
pointed out the stamp, the one that said CAMEROON VISA. 

When he’d gone through the same routine with David’s pass- 
port, making him point out his visa, the head cop finally gave us a 
sour nod. As we pedaled away, David turned to me. "Aren’t you glad 
they have adult literacy programs?” 

"Really,” I shook my head slowly, "I can understand why they 
have to accept illiterate soldiers, but illiterate policemen seems a bit 
much.” I laughed at a sudden thought. "How’s he going to read you 
your rights?” 

"Your rightsT said David pointedly. 


The highway moved up and down just enough to keep it inter- 
esting, but we were nearly always wheeling along in high gear, the 
wonderful end-in-itself kind of cycling I’d been wanting. Answered 
prayers — or a fully-operating fetish. The landscape reeled by like 
an ever-changing frieze: mangoes, avocados, casuarinas, giant ferns, 
and many groves of banana palms. Stranger things grew as well, 
like a twenty-foot-tall tree whose branches all ended in green bottle- 


167 



The Masked Rider 


brushes, and several rows of shrubs whose tiny flowers looked ex- 
actly like Trix cereal — orange-orange, raspberry-red, lemon-yellow. 

In the town of Foumbot we chose an eating-shop for breakfast, 
then leaned our bicycles against a wall across the street to wait for 
the others. I climbed on top of the wall and sat there, David sat by 
the curb, and we watched the town go by. Many of the men wore 
long white shirts that reached down to their ankles, Muslim style, 
and I noticed that some of them walked together, hand in hand, or 
with their little fingers linked. I had often seen the young Maasai 
warriors in East Africa walking with an arm around each other, and 
reflected on how refreshing it was to see men whose machismo 
didn’t crumble at physical contact with other males. Not the brief 
bear-hug-and-back-pounding ritual of Europeans, the ceremonial 
clinch-and-break, or the quick cool handshake of the Brits, but an 
easy contact — just strolling along the road with hands or fingers 
joined. Some of them seemed to draw apart when they saw David 
and me, and I wondered what made them suddenly self-conscious. 
Perhaps previous white visitors had made fun of them, and showed 
them the ugliness of sexual insecurity. Or maybe they knew of the 
western stigma, and didn’t want to be thought of as homosexuals. 
Or maybe they were homosexuals? David said no; it was just a com- 
fortable custom among the men here. 'Tunny thing,” he said, "Afri- 
cans always claim there is no homosexuality in Africa, but I had 
some friends in the Peace Corps who were gay, and they never had 
any trouble finding partners!” 

Once the others arrived and we’d had our usual omelette, ba- 
guette , and Nescafe, I headed off alone. I couldn’t wait to get back on 
that road. Breezing through checkpoint number four without pause, 
I went spinning along once more, appreciating the contrast with the 
previous days, remembering the bicycle bucking under me like a 
wild horse. With a long, sweeping downhill ahead, I stopped pedal- 
ing and enjoyed the free ride, gathering speed as the trees began to 
blur. But just as I was coasting along the valley floor, I saw another 
barricade. 

This one seemed a little meaner than the others, just a pair of oil 
drums at the side, a small raffia shelter, and a patched line of rope 
and strips of rubber laying across the pavement. Two uniformed fig- 
ures stepped out in front of me, and with a sigh I coasted in. 


168 



Neil Peart 


But something didn’t seem right here. One man was too old, 
spindly, and toothless to be a soldier, while the other was young and 
squat, with crossed eyes and a vacant grin. Their faded khaki uni- 
forms boasted no badges or decoration, and then I noticed they car- 
ried no weapons. But, they also carried no “attitude;” they were 
friendlier than any real soldiers, so I decided to play along for a 
while. 

The old man played “officer,” though his French was as halting 
as my own, and delivered with many grunts and facial contortions. 
He went through the usual routine: where was I going, where was I 
from, while the young one looked on expectantly with a gaping grin. 
They must have thought they’d hooked a big one — a lone white 
man on a bicycle. When the wobbly old rogue ran out of French, he 
turned to gestures to describe what he really wanted. He cupped his 
hand and raised it to his mouth, while the young imbecile nodded 
his empty head and giggled. They were looking for booze. 

“Je n’ai que I’eau,” I told them; I have nothing but water. There 
was more nodding, smiling, grunting, and gesturing, while I pointed 
to my water bottles, and told them it would be too hot to carry any 
beer on my bike. They smiled and nodded, uncomprehending. Then 
the old man made the other time-honored gesture, thumb against 
index finger, and I shook my head again, smiling. “Pas de Vargent , 
pas de la biereT Sorry guys, no money, no beer. But I shook their 
hands before I rode away. 

Late in the morning the smooth cruising came to an end. The 
road suddenly turned upward, and stayed upward for about four 
miles. I shifted into a lower gear and bent into the climb, expecting 
the top of the hill to appear after every winding of the road. Some- 
how you can tell when the crest of a hill is approaching — by the 
light, by the amount of sky between the trees. As I stood on the ped- 
als, sweat running into my eyes, I waited for that telltale bit of open 
sky to appear before me. 

A length of dry snakeskin lay crushed on the road. The feathers 
of a dead whippoorwill stirred in the wind from passing cars and 
trucks, whose slipstreams also gave me a momentary boost. A mili- 
tary convoy roared by my elbow, four olive-drab trucks carrying 
thirty or forty soldiers each. As the canvas-covered trucks strained 
up the endless hill (like me, in low gear) the soldiers turned to stare. 


169 



The Masked Rider 


Most of them were stern-faced, though one or two waved and 
smiled. 

By the time the telltale bit of sky told me I’d crested the hill, I 
was into the traffic and buildings of Bafoussam. I stopped for a 
warm Coke and some biscuits, and sat down to wait. David came 
sweltering up just behind, and pulled off to sit beside me. iC Well, 
how’d you like that one?” he said. 

“Quite a climb, but even that’s okay with me. This whole ride 
has been great — my kind of cycling.” 

David told me he was going on into town to check on hotels, and 
asked me to wait for the others. As I leaned back against the wall, I 
noticed a big Mercedes sedan parked on a side street across from me. 
It didn’t appear to have been wrecked or burned, but only aban- 
doned and stripped of everything reusable. Cars of that wabenzi 
class were rare in Cameroon, and probably one of the most coveted 
luxuries in the whole country, and yet it had simply been aban- 
doned. 

Elsa too had been abandoned. Leonard came laboring up the 
hill, the usual waterfall of sweat drenching his clothes, and sat be- 
side me to wring out his shirt and multiple bandanas. As we 
watched the pool of moisture evaporate, Annie arrived, blowing the 
limp hair away from her red face. Neither of them had any idea how 
far behind Elsa was; no one had stayed back with her. When we’d 
waited a half hour for her and she still hadn’t shown, we decided to 
go on into town and find David. 

The streets of Bafoussam were busy, noisy, and stifling, wearing 
an aspect of dusty neglect. We found the hotel David had mentioned, 
with him parked outside it, but the place looked especially 
uninviting. And worse — it was full. We waited there by the street 
and watched the trucks rumble by for nearly two hours before Elsa 
appeared, and we moved on to the Hotel Le Continental. 

After two weeks of bucket baths, sponge baths, cold showers, or, 
like the previous night, going to bed dirty because the water was 
“seized,” I stood in a steamy bathroom and felt the benediction of hot 
water. The only bad thing was having to make it brief. I could have 
stayed under that shower for a long time, but there were two others 
waiting to use it. I didn’t want to be remembered as the one who 
used all the hot water. 


170 



Neil Peart 


Music wafted through the open window from a record store 
across the street, and my ears locked onto something new, a kind of 
Cameroonian pop music I hadn’t heard before. Though still obvi- 
ously West African in rhythm and sound, it was a little more sophis- 
ticated in its arrangements, with dynamics and textures, rather 
than the usual single-purpose boom-ba-boom-ba-boom. This was not 
just for dancing; it was nice to listen to, with echoes of the smooth 
“Philly Sound” and hints of Jamaica and Nigeria as well — a fine ex- 
ample of the cross-pollination which has enriched both African and 
Western music. 

It was good music to do laundry by, and soon damp clothes were 
strung from wall to wall like yachting flags, criss-crossing the room 
four times. Making my way from one side to the other was like 
pushing through a soggy jungle. 

When the washing was done, I lay back on the foam-slab mat- 
tress to read some Aristotle, feeling pink-clean, smooth-shaven and 
pleasantly drowsy. Happy. Leonard snored from his bed in the cor- 
ner, while David quietly hung the last T-shirt. The two of them also 
looked much cleaner, and if not shaven, at least they had clean 
beards. After a day without Elsa, David seemed fully recovered from 
his bad mood of the previous day, and looked — happy. 

And, with perfect synchronicity, I was reading about that very 
subject. “Happiness is an activity of the soul in accordance with vir- 
tue.” Typical of Aristotle, it takes a book to expand on that terse 
maxim, but the main points eventually came clear to me. Like that 
old saying, “Happiness is not a station to be arrived at, but a mode 
of travel.” Therefore it follows that happiness is a bicycle. 

Once again, I had to remember that every word counts. You 
wouldn’t call anyone happy because he experienced a momentary 
pleasure, or laughed once, or had one hot shower in two weeks. 
Happiness takes time, in a real sense. It’s not the prize you win, but 
the way you ride the bike. Happiness is a paved road. 

And that “virtue” we’re supposed to be in accordance with, what 
do we make of that? Virtue is a funny sort of word, and not a fash- 
ionable one. It has a Victorian ring of purse-lipped parsons and aged 
virginity, and through long abuse has acquired the stain of self-righ- 
teous hypocrisy too. No one I know would want to be called virtuous. 
I know I wouldn’t. Some translators prefer to substitute “excel- 


171 



The Masked Rider 


lence,” as a more exact rendering of the Greek arete, and omit the 
"soul” business, so that happiness becomes "an activity in accor- 
dance with excellence.” 

I can live with that. How to define excellence? The proper an- 
swer, as to so many other things that ought to be self-evident, is: "If 
you have to ask ...” But I set the book aside to think about it for a 
minute. I suppose I might define excellence as doing something well 
enough that other people who do it too admire your work. That can 
be true of playing the piano, tuning an engine, planting a garden, 
making tortellini, or just plain living. And that would be perfectly in 
tune with my understanding of Aristotle’s meaning — "Happiness is 
excellent living.” 

But you know it doesn’t end there. For instance, a friend and I 
once argued for hours over whether excellence is a luxury. I said it 
was; he said it wasn’t. He’s not here right now to give his side, but I 
figure nearly everything except vegetables is a luxury. Honesty, good 
taste, and certainly excellence of all kinds. An excellent house is 
nice, but a noisy brothel with "seized” water will do. An excellent 
tortellini is a virtuous thing, but if you’re starving you won’t quibble 
if it’s not quite al dente. You might even eat fufu, or rice with junk 
on it. Excellence is a bicycle — but you can always walk. 


These days I can afford to pride myself on a firm integrity, but in 
other times I have been poor and desperate, and have seen how for- 
givable, even necessary, stealing can seem. When I was a foolish 
eighteen-year-old seeking fame and fortune on my own in England, 
I joined a small-time band. In time, as we rehearsed together and 
tongues were loosened when we adjourned to the pub, I learned that 
all of their equipment had been stolen from another band. Even 
their van was stolen. Tb a small-town Canadian boy this was pretty 
shocking stuff, but I had to play it cool, just nod and say nothing. I 
wanted to be worldly, and in any case I wasn’t particularly judgmen- 
tal in those days, except about my parents, so I also didn’t flinch 
when I learned that all this stuff had been stolen by the band’s 
equipment manager, Simon ( equipment manager indeed!). But 
Simon was a good guy, friendly to me, and nothing is really a crime 
to an eighteen-year-old, except being his parents. 


172 



Neil Peart 


During long drives up the Ml to the north of England for small- 
change gigs, I became friends with Simon, sitting up all night in the 
shotgun seat beside him and talking, as we watched the dark 
motorway speed toward us. I liked his northern candor and native 
warmth, and his extra-legal activities were never mentioned be- 
tween us. I only heard these things from the guys in the band, 
who’d also told me that Simon sometimes “knocked over” petrol sta- 
tions at night. 

When those small-change gigs were over, and there was no 
money and no more work, I became suddenly destitute — lacking 
the “luxuries” of food and rent. As an immigrant without a work per- 
mit, almost an illegal alien, work was hard to get, and so, not know- 
ing where else to turn, I asked Simon if I could accompany him “on 
a job” sometime. Fortunately for my future, he only shook his head, 
embarrassed, and slipped me a five-pound note from time to time. 

Simon would go on to become a professional “villain” (his word), 
but he wouldn’t drag a small-town Canadian boy into it. Mind you, I 
didn’t quibble about accepting his ill-gotten gains, and my con- 
science was not stirred by the luckless petrol- station owner any 
more than it was by the band’s stolen van and equipment. 

So, I have learned that my precious integrity is no less than a 
precious luxury. I have been fortunate (and stubborn) enough to be 
able to be honest, to be uncompromising, to pursue excellence. Tb 
ride a paved road. 


173 



The unpaved road. 

Somewhere in northern Cameroon. 



psopls or. tks bus 


Few people in West Africa own private cars; most travel by 
shared taxi or bus. No visit to Africa is complete without a journey 
by one of those methods — if you’re not in a hurry and you don’t 
mind being crushed up against your fellow humans for long hours 
with one buttock on the seat and one suspended in the air. 

The southern portion of our Cameroon odyssey was over, and we 
were catching a bus to the capital city, Yaounde, then taking a 
twelve-hour train ride to the north. At 6:30 in the morning we 
cycled into Bafoussam’s crowded bus park, where the Japanese 
minibuses waited in rows, departing by no schedule, but only when 
they were full. David was already there, embroiled in an argument 
with the despatcher and a circle of drivers over the fare for us and 
the bicycles. Finally he ducked out of the circle like a man emerging 
from a tent. “All settled,” he said with a tight smile, then climbed 
atop one of the minibuses. Leonard and I passed the bikes and pan- 
niers up to him, while the crowd moved over to surround the bus 
and study the white men and their machines. 

I sat on the bus and waited for it to fill up, chewing on a beignet 
and looking out the window. Hawkers approached the bus, hissing 
to catch our attention, and displayed their wares: toothpaste, wire 
hangers with pink satin covers, soap, men’s underwear, kola nuts, 
and cheap watches. When a boy hissed and knocked at our window 
with a tray of toilet paper, Leonard laughed “Hey man, I haven’t 
even finished eating yet!” 

A man in a long dirty overcoat carried a greasy drum over his 
shoulder as he strolled aimlessly through the crowd. His hair was 
long and unkempt, his eyes glazed over, and he didn’t actually play 
the drum, just tapped at it nervously with his fingers, as if on a 
table top. Watching him, it occurred to me how few real vagrants I 
had seen in Cameroon, so few I could remember each one. There 
seemed to be no bums, no winos, no armies of the homeless in the 
streets of Cameroon, and perhaps that was because the ties of family 


175 




The Masked Rider 


remain so strong in Africa. The reprobates and the unbalanced are 
kept at home. 

Blind and crippled people begged in the streets of the cities, but 
in this culture begging was seen as a kind of “occupation” for the af- 
flicted, nothing dishonorable about it. And the beggars were often 
guided by a child; they were cared for, helped. This suggested a par- 
allel as banal as truth often is. Perhaps the splintering family net- 
work in the West explains why we seem unable to help the bottom 
layer of our society. Faceless charity cannot reach them, or succor 
them, and the biggest maladjustment for such people is that no one 
really cares about them. They are truly lost with their carrier bags, 
truly alone under their newsprint bedspreads. 

I look at their faces in our cities. I feel no disgust, but only pity 
and wonder. I wonder about their stories. I don’t know what it is I 
seek, really. Maybe some flicker of dignity, or even sorrow. As a child 
I imagined the bums must know some “secret,” must have learned 
some dark knowledge that caused them to retire from the world into 
the “hobo jungle” behind the arena in my town. But now I guess 
they’re just confused, maybe wondering why the rest of us bother. 

Hookers fascinate me in the same way. Working at a recording 
studio in Ibronto, I used to cycle home at midnight through the 
middle of their territory. I would see them leaning against a bus 
shelter smoking cigarettes, appraising the passing cars. Some of 
them seemed so young and frail-looking in their costumes, their 
heavy makeup, their big hairdos. As I rode by I tried to look at their 
faces, to see something there — someone’s daughter, someone’s sis- 
ter — but their masks were tough. I wanted to see some vulnerabil- 
ity, some sense of them as victims , but I saw only a cynical, wiser- 
than-thou stare, like a soldier or a teenage boy. Tb them, it was just 
a job. 


The three-hour bus ride seemed much longer. Four of us were 
crammed into a seat which would have been crowded for three, and 
we had to stagger our shoulders, one forward, one back. I watched 
the walls of trees pass by, the highway cutting through the dense 
rainforest on long, rolling hills. It was beautiful at first, then only 
monotonous in the cramped bus. The white kilometer markers at 


176 



Neil Peart 


the roadside counted down the distance. Discomfort became drowsi- 
ness, my eyes grew heavy, but only Leonard could manage to sleep 
under those conditions. Occasionally the driver lit a cigarette, and I 
smiled darkly to see Elsa recoil from him as if he’d suddenly con- 
tracted leprosy. 

Every few miles we were stopped at roadblocks, and stewed in 
the roadside heat for long minutes while our driver followed one of 
the soldiers to a more private place — to pay his dash. Sometimes I 
even saw him take out a few banknotes before he left his seat. Brib- 
ery was simply a fact of life for the bus and taxi drivers. You pay or 
you stay. And not just the drivers either; one time on a bus in the 
Ivory Coast I saw a woman arguing with a soldier over her papers, 
but the soldier just ordered her off the bus — “Descendez” — shoul- 
dered his gun, and turned away. Without even stirring from her 
seat, the woman called the driver over, handed him some money, 
and the driver followed the soldier back down the road. A few min- 
utes later we all drove away. 

According to the West African lexicon, this was not a bribe, but a 
fee. In a small town in Ghana, a young bookseller named Fred ex- 
plained the difference. Fred was about to be married, and his 
fiancee was studying to be a teacher. Asked what would happen if 
she were sent to teach in another town after graduation, Fred said 
that he would have to go see someone and pay some money. 

“A dash, you mean.” 

“No no no — you don’t understand. It is not a dash. Because I 
want something to be done, I must pay this man to see that it is 
done.” 

So then, a dash is a “gift” the bus driver gives to the soldier so 
that something won’t happen to him, while Fred pays a “fee” to see 
that something does happen. Just like the so-called “back door” net- 
work in China, or the western exchanging of “under the table” fa- 
vors in business and politics. It’s just that in this respect, Africa is 
much more developed. 

Cameroon seemed to be unique among West African countries in 
the attention the soldiers paid to westerners. Ever since the coup at- 
tempt in 1984, they’ve been convinced we’re all spies. In most coun- 
tries the authorities are content to hassle their own people and leave 
the tourists alone, but every time that bus was stopped on our way 
to Yaounde, they had to see each of our passports, even if the 
Cameroonians were just given a quick scan. 


177 



The Masked Rider 


One time, though, they quietly pulled a guy off the bus and led 
him away. This was alarming — how little he resisted, and how the 
other passengers just looked away. I tried to imagine this happening 
on a North American bus, all the excitement and gossip it would 
cause among the other passengers. But here people only turned the 
other way, minded their own business. African countries can hold up 
the democratic mask, but up close you see the way it really works. 


When we finally arrived at the bus park outside Yaounde it was 
midday, and stifling hot. The crowded bus-park reeked of urine. We 
quickly hauled our bikes down from the roof of the bus, loaded them 
up and rode away. After weeks of back roads, small towns, and vil- 
lages, Yaounde seemed like Manhattan to me. Modern buildings 
towered above the streets, yet their boldly geometric style made 
them uniquely African. A gridwork of giant cranes swung above the 
empty frames of office and apartment blocks. 

As we passed the great marketplace, music blared out from 
stores and cars; people were talking and yelling and selling things. 
Everything smelled like sewage and exhaust. Traffic was pure 
chaos, even with policemen “directing” it. Cars snarled down on us 
from every side; taxis stopped suddenly and cut to the side of the 
road, and I tried not to panic. In this artificial calm I noticed a few 
Mercedes sedans among the Peugeots and Japanese taxis, though 
many of those prestigious wabenzi cars bore the scars of frequent ac- 
cidents, unskilled bodywork, and homemade paint jobs. That and 
the crumpled taxis suggested that people crashed into each other a 
lot, and I tried to stay out of their way. 

Just after dark we strolled around the corner from the Hotel 
Nourrice (meaning wet-nurse, oddly). The water, of course, was 
“seized” — plastic buckets were carried to our rooms from a cistern 
in the courtyard — but the electricity worked. Sometimes. Life as 
usual in the capital of Cameroon. The hotel was on a hill above 
Yaounde, and the lights of the city sparkled between the dark build- 
ings. Above everything a single huge cloud loomed, lit from within 
by sudden veins of lightning. Cars seemed to float by on a cloud of 
dust which filled the headlight beams and ghosted the crowds. The 


178 



Neil Peart 


neighborhood accepted us without notice; there were no stares, no 
comments. 

David led us to a corner lined with stalls where fires glowed un- 
der iron grilles, and pale light bulbs hung from wires. He stopped at 
one of the stalls and talked with a fat, perspiring woman who was 
busily cleaning fish. She looked up from her work to speak to David, 
but kept slicing with her knife. She smiled hugely and beckoned us 
to a bench behind her. 

An hour later we were stuffed with smoked fish, grilled maize- 
on-the-cob, barbecued beef, fried plantains, and Fanta. I turned to 
David. “The best meal I’ve had in Cameroon.” He nodded, and 
Leonard chipped in a “Yeah man.” Annie smiled. Even Elsa seemed 
happy. 


In the crowded train station we huddled around our bicycles, 
stripping them of panniers and pedals to go into the baggage car. A 
rainshower pelted the forlorn palms for a few minutes, and the 
throng pressed even tighter under the station portico. No one paid 
any attention to the garbage fire, a roiling of flames and black 
smoke between two buildings across the parking lot. 

The rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun, and Annie, Elsa, 
and I stood guard over the bags while David and Leonard pushed 
the bikes into the building. I saw Elsa aiming her camera at the 
scalloped roof of the station, and said to her quietly, “Don’t do it.” 

She snapped back, “What do you mean?” 

Sweet Elsa. I explained what she ought to have known by that 
time. ‘You’re not allowed to take pictures of anything governmental, 
not even train stations. And look at all the cops and soldiers around 
here.” She looked as if she didn’t want to believe me, but khaki and 
camouflage were everywhere, and fortunately she put her camera 
away, shaking her head as if it were my fault. 

David appeared out of the crowd, pursued by one of the train 
station hustlers, the two of them carrying on a loud argument in 
French. Leonard told us this shabbily-dressed teenager had ap- 
peared at the baggage car as they were loading the bikes, and had 


179 



The Masked Rider 


jumped in, unasked and unneeded, to help put them aboard. Now he 
demanded a thousand francs for his trouble. 

As we shuffled our packs through the crowd to the train, the boy 
jogged sideways beside us, haraiiguing in bursts of impassioned 
French. Often the invective flew over our heads, and David and I to- 
gether couldn’t figure out what he was saying, but we got the drift. 
Finally David offered him two hundred francs, take it or leave it, 
but the hustler wouldn’t do either. He was outraged at David’s re- 
fusal to go along with the time-honored scam of fleecing travelers. 

But David had obviously been through this before, and wasn’t 
ready to give in. The two of them fired blanks at each other right to 
the door of the carriage. Then the boy stormed off, threatening to 
take our bicycles off the train. Leonard, the peacemaker, asked if it 
would be an honorable solution for him to pay the boy, but David 
wisely said that giving in would only make it worse for the next vic- 
tims. 

Once my gear was on board, I shadowed the hustler along the 
platform, down the length of the train to the baggage cars. Through 
the open door I saw him hoisting one of the bikes, as if to make good 
on his threat, so I planted myself in front of the door, summoning 
some false bravado to go with my real anger. “Ne touchez pas,” I 
said. 

I guess I looked bigger than I felt; the boy froze. He put down 
the bicycle, spread his hands and started into another burst of out- 
rage. Yet he wasn’t really expressing anger or hostility; he was al- 
most pleading. The kid honestly believed that he was the one being 
ripped off here. I couldn’t catch all of what he said, but sensed that 
it didn’t really matter; the issues were clear. 

“Ne touchez pas,” I repeated, “C’est mon velo” It wasn’t really 
my bike, it was Annie’s, but I folded my arms across my chest and 
stared him down. David joined me on the platform and I asked him 
if we should try to find a gendarme. He told me that wasn’t always a 
good idea — you couldn’t tell whose side a policeman would take. 
Sometimes the White Man was always wrong. Facing two of us now, 
the boy jumped from the baggage car and stalked down the platform 
to the station. David and I went back to our carriage, but kept a 
careful watch on the baggage car. 

The boy did return one more time, with a few cronies who acted 
more curious than threatening, and an older man who seemed to be 
an official of some kind, though he wore no uniform. David was 


180 



Neil Peart 


drawn into another round of bickering, mediated by the older man, 
and the boy finally accepted David’s offer of two hundred francs, 
though he obviously still felt cheated. At last the train shuddered, 
then rattled out of the station. 

Our first-class compartment was clean and comfortable, two 
stacked berths on each side. In spite of its gray formica and stainless 
steel, the compartment possessed the innate coziness of any small, 
moving capsule — a ship’s cabin, a tour bus — and I felt lucky to 
have it. I knew that on David’s previous trip he’d been unable to re- 
serve a compartment, and his group had sat all night on the hard 
wooden benches in second class. 

As the train sped into the sudden darkness I sat reading a two- 
day-old International Herald Tribune, and nibbling at the goodies I 
had bought at the SCORE supermarket: cookies, raisins, peanuts, 
and chocolate bars. When the lights went off in our carriage I 
worked on the crossword puzzle by flashlight, but a commotion at 
the door made me raise my eyes. An African man was greeting 
David in the darkness. He worked for the government, some kind of 
official tourist guide, and David had met him on a previous trip. Be- 
hind this man came a German woman, bumping against the door- 
way with her eyes wide in the light from our flashlights. She seemed 
hysterical, nearly incoherent, and I thought she must be drunk, or 
frightened, or both. 

She sat down in our compartment, calmed by our lights and our 
presence, and began to speak in breathless, rambling phrases, occa- 
sionally erupting into fits of edgy giggling. Through her accent and 
her agitation I managed to figure out that her husband was a pho- 
tographer, and they’d been traveling around southern Cameroon by 
car. Now, like us, they were on their way north, their Land Cruiser 
loaded on the back of the train. Apparently she didn’t enjoy this 
kind of traveling, but wanted to be with her husband. 

The guide asked us to help get the woman back to their carriage, 
so Leonard and I led the way down the dark corridor with our flash- 
lights. When we reached the door at the end, and faced the abyss 
separating the carriages, the German woman was terrified by the 
noise, the darkness, and the tiny “bridge” she had to cross. Leonard 
and I placed ourselves at each end of the bridge, while the guide 
handed her slowly across. I took her hand, feeling it stiff and trem- 
bling as I almost lifted her into the corridor on the other side. 


181 



The Masked Rider 


At the door of her compartment we were met by the woman’s 
worried husband. He thanked us in a heavy German accent, while 
his frau fell into his arms. She turned and gushed with a gratitude 
far outweighing our services. As we turned to go I caught Leonard’s 
eye, and he raised an eyebrow. 

The train stopped briefly at a few small, unlit stations outside 
the city, and during one of the stops I saw two coveralled workers 
pass through our carriage. Leonard and I followed them to see if 
they were going to fix the lights, and found them at the end of the 
car, fiddling at a power box. One of them was steadily lighting 
matches — they had no flashlight. Leonard and I shone our lights 
on the rows of breakers and fuses, until the men finally located the 
breakdown. Suddenly the overhead lights came on, and the two men 
smiled at us. “Merci. Bonsoir” 

And bonsoir it was, for as soon as the lights were fixed everyone 
seemed to fall asleep — or at least lay very quietly with their eyes 
closed. I reached up from my lower berth to turn the lights off again, 
and lay in the dark thinking about Yaounde, collecting my impres- 
sions. Hot, humid, the omnipresent smell of exhaust fumes and 
urine. Men pissed everywhere on the streets, and I’d even seen a 
woman hoist her pagne and squat on a back street, while her young 
son waited beside her. 

One event stood out in Yaounde, apart from the excellent street- 
food and our hotel being without water for the whole two days we 
were there. The big event for me was a telephone call home. I’d 
locked my bike outside the PTT (. Poste , Telegraphe, Telephone) 
building on Yaounde’s main roundabout, then threaded through the 
beggars and pedlars and went inside to find the telephones. The 
building was old and dingy, a few people standing lazily along the 
counter. I don’t know what I expected, perhaps a row of telephone 
booths with an operator to place your call, but I saw nothing that 
looked promising. ‘Maybe another part of the building,’ I thought, 
and walked back outside to look for another entrance. But no, that 
was it. Finally I asked at the telegraph desk, and was directed to a 
counter in the corner, where a woman dozed over a single ’5 Os-vin- 
tage telephone. I asked her about making a call to Canada, and 
without a word she passed me a scrap of paper to write down the 
number. Moments later she motioned for me to sit on the bench be- 
side her, and handed me the receiver. 


182 



Neil Peart 


“I don’t understand you,” I heard Jackie say, still responding to 
the operator. 

“Hi, it’s me,” I said, and she laughed with sudden recognition. A 
delay on the line made our conversation a bit disjointed, but the con- 
nection was surprisingly good. She asked me how I was doing, and I 
told her I was okay. “It’s been wild — things are a little primitive 
here. Had a couple of days when I was pretty sick, and I’ve been 
feeling low and homesick sometimes. Not always fun. But it’s been, 
ah, interesting. I’m counting down the days until Paris.” 

She laughed her knowing laugh, “Well, thanks for telling me all 
the lies, anyway!” 

I laughed too, the delay cutting our laughs into one. “I can’t talk 
for very long, it’ll be expensive and I haven’t got a lot of money right 
now.” 

“Okay, well it’s good to hear your voice anyway. I’ve been won- 
dering about you.” 

“Yeah, I’ve been thinking about you guys a lot too.” Two more 
weeks until I would see her in Paris, it seemed so far off. And an- 
other week after that before I’d see my ten-year-old daughter, 
Selena. I’d been missing her a lot too. 

But that had been my brief contact with that other life, the real 
life. I’d been feeling it strongly, worst when I was ill back in Ndop, 
but in some ways being in Yaounde made it more acute. The hints of 
that other world: a cinema, newspapers, the white Oldsmobile out- 
side the U.S. embassy. Sometimes the longing surfaced on the least 
profound thoughts — the growing pile of exposed films in my pan- 
niers made me think of home, of getting them developed. Or looking 
at my disintegrating shoes made me think of being able to throw 
them away. The longing became an ache. 

As any traveler knows, a phone call home is no cure for home- 
sickness, or missing someone. It really only makes it worse. But at 
least you both know the other is still alive. That knowledge was 
small comfort to me as I lay in my berth on the sleeping train, sway- 
ing in the darkness as we sped toward Ngaoundere. 


Just before dawn I stood in the corridor and watched a new 
landscape materialize. The air was cool on the high Adamoua Pla- 


183 



The Masked Rider 


teau, almost chilling as it rushed in the windows, carrying the 
smoke from grassfires on the plains. Figures began to emerge from 
the grass-roofed huts along the tracks. 

As we slowed for the station at Ngaoundere, a woman began 
screaming desperately in the neighboring compartment. She cried 
out in great sorrow, keening and sobbing out of control, while a sud- 
den shuffle of people moved up and down the corridor. From one of 
them we learned that the woman had been robbed; she’d been carry- 
ing a lot of money back from Yaounde, and it had been taken from 
beneath her head while she slept. I heard the voices of other women 
trying to comfort her, and men’s voices asking her questions, but all 
she could do was wail. 

I understood the ruin this loss could mean for the woman and 
her family, and was moved to sympathy. I thought of giving her all 
the Cameroon money I was carrying, forty or fifty dollars, but didn’t 
know how to go about it, how such a gesture would be accepted. In 
ignorance and self-consciousness, I did nothing. At the station I 
watched sadly as she was led away in a huddle of flowing robes, 
bowed and stumbling. 

While I stood on the steps of the train waiting for the others to 
get organized, I felt a bumping beneath my feet, then the train 
lurched and I had to grab the handrail. It was moving away! Where 
was it going? I thought this was the end of the line, but who could 
be sure? David had already jumped down with his bags, and I hesi- 
tated while there was still time. I was ready, I could get off and 
leave the others to their fate, or stay on the train and try to help 
with whatever happened. 

Perhaps the woman’s plight had activated my sympathy-re- 
sponses, for I quickly decided to remain. David could look after him- 
self, but I was the only other one who spoke any French. I stood on 
the step shaking my head and watching as the train moved in a 
wide, slow circle, then stopped in the service yards a half-mile away. 
Already a crew of young boys was moving from car to car, scaveng- 
ing and cleaning. 

I humped all of my bags back to the station, along with one of 
Elsa’s (which she later took back without thanks). At the unhitched 
baggage car I found David alone amid a crowd of twenty hustling 
boys, all of them fighting to get hold of our bicycles. Fed up by now, I 
grabbed two of the bicycles out of their clutches and stalked away up 
the platform, pushing a bicycle with each hand. Leonard looked sur- 


184 



Neil Peart 


prised at my brusqueness, but he and David followed with the other 
three bikes. I was beginning to learn that politeness and patience 
were the weaknesses on which the hustlers fed; if you wanted to es- 
cape them you had to simply push right through. 


The little bus had been built to carry eighteen passengers. 
Thirty-four of us were squeezed aboard the blue and white “Coaster” 
for the two-hundred-mile ride to Garoua, where we would start cy- 
cling again. I perched on the edge of a seat in a most unnatural way, 
while the rest of our group was scattered among the compressed 
mass. Leonard nodded in half-sleep in front of me, while at the end 
of his row a scruffy-looking Australian named Ken delivered a cheer- 
ful ongoing commentary to anyone who would listen, or could under- 
stand. Ken wore the ragged and slightly unhealthy look of the long- 
time tropical gypsy. Something about his bearing, his wiry pallor, 
made him look as if he’d just recovered from some wasting disease. 
The few whites I’d seen in Yaounde often wore the same look, 
French women shopping in the SCORE supermarket, businessmen 
in the banks. They all looked drained, colorless, even seedy, as con- 
spicuous and ill-kept as the other colonial leftovers, the old build- 
ings. 

Ken had been traveling in Asia and Africa for four years, and 
was so glad to encounter us in this desolate outpost that it seemed 
he couldn’t prevent himself from talking. He told traveler’s tales of 
eating monkey and crocodile in Zaire, of spending days in jail in 
Gabon for some visa irregularity, and of running from bullets in 
Uganda. Finally Annie passed him my three-day-old International 
Herald Tribune , and he was quiet for awhile as he devoured every 
word, from editorials to ads (just as I had). As the crowded little bus 
rolled on, I watched the yellow grass and thorn trees stretch away 
under a crystal sky. Now we were in the Sahel, a belt of dry savanna 
which borders the Sahara. 

Suddenly there was a bang and a rhythmic thumping from be- 
hind my seat. One of the dual rear tires had obviously blown, but 
the driver didn’t even slow down. I knew one tire wouldn’t support 
all this weight for long, and sure enough, another bang and a loud 
thumping of tire carcass announced the collapse of the second one. 


185 



The Masked Rider 


The heavy bus wove drunkenly from side to side, drawing gasps and 
cries from the female passengers. Pieces of rubber littered the road 
behind as the driver finally brought the bus to a stop, then climbed 
out to have a look. Some of the passengers got off the bus too, and I 
realized this might take a while. My momentary fear melted to a 
studied patience. Sitting as I had been, cramped and half-assed, one 
whole leg had gone numb, so I was grateful for the chance to escape. 
I was also grateful for our bicycles on the roof, if we really had to es- 
cape. As I stood and waited while a one-legged man in rags hobbled 
to the ground, my leg suddenly felt much better. 

The crew huddled around the masticated tires. The fat driver 
chewed his lip while an arrogant young dandy who was a kind of 
“conductor” jabbered orders to a teenage boy with ruined teeth, who 
climbed under the bus and started jacking it up. Of course, there 
was only one spare tire, which might have been of some help if the 
driver had stopped after the first blowout, but now it was useless. I 
cast another glance at our bicycles on the roof, then settled in the 
grass on the shady side of the bus. Many of the passengers remained 
in their seats, waiting stoically, while others milled around outside. 
The one-legged man hoisted his long tattered shirt, squatted at the 
roadside and urinated at ground level. 

Finally the crew flagged down a truck and managed to borrow a 
tire. While our driver leaned his considerable bulk on the tire irons, 
and the younger boy worked under the bus, the conducteur kept his 
chin high and his hands clean, “directing” the operation. David was 
in there too, doing what he could to help. The midday heat brought 
a torpor to the scene, and the waiting passengers, even Ken, fell si- 
lent. The only sounds were clanging tools and the quiet discussions 
among the workers. 

And so it was almost an anticlimax when the driver waved ev- 
eryone aboard. No cheers, no smiles, just the conducteur’s bullying 
orders and nudges to get in. Like, suddenly we’re in a hurry ? Every- 
one took their previous places, with a few quiet protests until we all 
had our allotted few inches of space once more. Two vast women in 
robes settled their ample hips beside me, their babies still eerily si- 
lent; they’d hardly made a sound all morning. 

The bus moved off into the dry heat of the day, the breeze bring- 
ing little relief. Once again the conducteur stood in front of me, just 
beside Leonard, and continued chatting up the woman beside me, 


186 



Neil Peart 


who was invisible beneath brown robes and flowing headscarf. Dur- 
ing the stop Leonard had told me this woman’s high-pitched babble 
and giggling was getting on his nerves; he called her “The Chinese 
Woman.” But it was the conducteur who bothered me. He had a flat, 
Nilotic face, with thin lips and the kind of narrow, hard eyes that 
look only inward, and wore a gray shirt printed with little black 
horseshoes. Everything about him showed his great self-regard, his 
supercilious expression, his carriage, his reluctance to get his hands 
dirty, his behavior to the boy with the broken teeth, and to us pas- 
sengers. His profession, though, showed the reality. Like the car 
washer in Foumban, he had disdain for the rest of the world, but he 
wasn’t doing so well himself. 

In the heat and discomfort of that endless ride, he continued his 
jabbering, in love with the sound of his own voice. The self-absorbed 
monologue was interrupted only by occasional high-pitched re- 
sponses from “The Chinese Woman.” Though his language was un- 
known to me, the tone was not — the swaggering banter of bars and 
boardrooms the world over. 

The conducteur also had the habit of letting his hands wander 
while he talked. Restless fingers picked at the handlebar bag on my 
lap, Leonard’s bicycle pedals on his lap, and even the knees of my 
pants. Leonard was dozing again, as only he could, so there was no 
one to share my annoyance. I glared needles at the conducteur , but 
he was oblivious. 

Occasionally we paused at a crossroads to set down or pick up a 
passenger, and one time the driver pulled off the road at a line of 
mud-brick kiosks and chophouses and shut down the engine. He 
told us we should get something to eat, and while we six foreigners 
huddled around a table with bottles of soda, I saw many of the other 
passengers laying out their prayer mats and bowing toward Mecca. 
This was not a “rest stop,” but a prayer stop, allowing the Muslims 
to make their afternoon devotions. 

During one stop in a small village a young woman stepped 
aboard. She was in her mid-twenties, and wore a lime-green sleeve- 
less dress, unusually revealing for an African woman, stretched 
tight across her small breasts and Rubens hips. Her eyes were nar- 
rowed over a wide nose and petulant mouth, and her expression was 
insolent, defiant. She stood in the footwell with her hands raised 
above her head, bracing herself against the roof of the bus and flash- 


187 



The Masked Rider 


ing her furry armpits. I decided she was probably a prostitute. Cer- 
tainly she was trouble. 

The conducteur transferred his attention to her, allowing an- 
other fortunate female to reflect his glory for awhile. She responded 
languidly, her body swaying beneath her upraised arms. Then sud- 
denly the whole bus was in an uproar. The boy with the broken 
teeth said something to her, and she reached out and struck him — 
hard. As he jumped to hit her back, the conducteur pushed him 
away, the driver shouted back to them, and the passengers erupted 
into turmoil. A babel of voices shouted around me; nearly everyone 
contributing, “The Chinese Woman,” the two fat ladies, even the 
one-legged man in front of me, who hadn’t said a word all day. The 
girl in the lime-green dress just stuck out her lower lip and raised 
her chin a little higher. 

The next time the bus stopped it was the boy who was put off, 
though further along the road, when the prostitute had departed, he 
somehow rejoined us. He must have hitchhiked up with a faster 
truck, or perhaps a taxi. And still the conducteur , the smooth-talk- 
ing dandy, went on talking, while I imagined ever more exquisite 
tortures for him. 

But all at once he was forgotten. The bus was in trouble again. 
It jolted, banged, jolted once more, then began to pour smoke out the 
sides. Soon it was coasting to the side of the road. This time it was 
engine failure, and the “Coaster” was finished — it would coast no 
further. The driver told David not to worry, another engine was on 
the way (a very likely story) and this illustrated another endear- 
ingly maddening African quality. 

So often Africans tend to tell people, especially white people, 
what they think you want to hear. You go into a bar and ask if they 
have any Coke, and the barman will smile and say 'Yes.” You ask if 
it’s cold, and he smiles wider, 'Yes.” Then he brings you a warm 
Sprite. “Is this all you have?” 'Yes.” You can’t get angry — they truly 
just want to make you happy. 

The two soldiers had already flagged down a ride, and some of 
the other passengers were trying to bargain with passing vehicles. 
Only thirty miles to Garoua, and we had our bicycles. David climbed 
up to the roof and passed down the bikes, and the rest of us quickly 
had them assembled and ready to go. We said goodbye to a sad-look- 
ing Ken, and filled our water bottles at the nearby well, me think- 
ing, 'We’ll see what happens when this hits my system!’ 


188 



Neil Peart 


David seemed to share my relief at being an independent trav- 
eler once more, and the two of us wheeled on ahead. A Lilac- 
breasted Roller winged by, sunrise colors of turquoise and mauve 
and long black tail-streamers rising and dipping in its flight. I 
cranked the pedals with pumping adrenalin, a sense of release, and 
a smile on my face. 

How different it is to be riding through a landscape, rather than 
just by it. In some ways it makes a strange place less exotic, and yet 
it becomes infinitely more real. You feel the road under your wheels, 
the sun and the wind on your body, and there are no walls or win- 
dows between your senses and the world. I once noticed this con- 
trast aboard a train in China; I looked out the window at a town and 
thought how strange and beautiful the houses seemed. The streets 
looked so truly foreign , almost surreal, then I realized with a smile 
that I had cycled through that very town the day before, and then it 
had seemed entirely normal and real. 

Reality reared its other side — the ugly side — as we rolled into 
Garoua. The road turned to follow a river where a few men fished in 
the shallow water. David and I rolled onto the bridge which crossed 
the river, and halfway across I stopped, admiring the view over the 
water, the green flats beyond, and the hazy hills in the distance. 
David stopped beside me, and as I took out my camera I saw him 
look warily up and down the road. Then he pulled his own camera 
from the handlebar bag, we each took a picture, and started off 
again. But a soldier came running from the other end of the bridge, 
shouting and waving his arms. David breathed a soft “oh-oh” as we 
stopped and waited for the olive-clad soldier to come up. Out of 
breath and very angry, he held out his hand and demanded our cam- 
eras. “Oil sont vos appareils -photo?” 

Feigning confusion, David handed the soldier his passport (there 
are times when it is better not to speak the language). Following his 
cue, I presented mine as well. The soldier shook his head, outraged 
and exasperated with us, and gestured to the other end of the 
bridge. A little anxious, I pushed my bike beside David to the check- 
point. Photographing anything as strategically sensitive as a bridge 
was considered an act of espionage, but as we walked David tried to 
explain to the soldier that we hadn’t taken a picture of the bridge, 
but of the landscape from the bridge. Surely that was not interditl 

“Tout est interdit” he answered reassuringly. Everything is for- 
bidden. 


189 



The Masked Rider 


David, who had played this game before, tried a strategic gam- 
bit. He assured the soldier that we’d been told by officials in 
Yaounde that it was not interdit to take pictures of the scenery, only 
military things were not allowed. Mention of the capital city, which 
our soldier had probably never visited, carried the spell of Mecca, in 
the sense that power was the military religion, and Yaounde was the 
heart of this power. Now he seemed a little less sure of himself, and 
called over another soldier. Fortunately this one was a different sort; 
his expression was good-natured, and he smiled when he saw my 
Canadian passport. The two soldiers conversed in a language of 
their own for a few minutes, and finally the angry soldier stalked 
away. The good-natured one handed back our passports and waved 
us on. 

After yet another checkpoint, the police this time, we were fi- 
nally in the streets of Garoua. Like Ngaoundere, it was a dusty, run- 
down place of low buildings and corrugated metal. Abandoned cars 
squatted at the roadside, stripped clean yet unblemished by corro- 
sion in the dry air, and groups of men and children idled their time 
on the street-corners. As usual, the women were off working some- 
where. 

I waited for the others in front of a shop, surrounded by curious 
children in long blouses like nightshirts. By the time David re- 
turned from scouting accommodations, the others had caught up 
and joined me in causing a sensation among the locals, and together 
we cruised over to the Sare Hotel. As in every place we’d stayed, ev- 
eryone was obliged to go inside the hotel to register individually, 
and, as in every place we’d stayed, Annie neglected to bring a pen 
inside with her — after three weeks of the same routine. When I 
had filled in my fiche I handed her my trusty Bic, and went outside 
to wait with the bicycles. But when she finally came out, and I held 
my hand out for the pen, she gave me a blank look. “Hmm?” 

Oh Annie. ''My pen?” I prompted. 

"Oh ... yeah ... heh-heh,” and she ran back inside to get it. 

My mask must have slipped; my expression must have displayed 
my annoyance and disbelief a little too transparently, for as Annie 
handed back my pen she remarked, "Boy, you sure can give a person 
a look when you want to.” I had to smile at that — strange how you 
think you’re hiding your feelings by not saying anything to some- 
one, when the unguarded face is the most eloquent speaker of all. 


190 



Neil Peart 


Certainly I had divined a lot about the people on the bus just by 
watching their faces, even though I couldn’t understand their 
speech. After six hours in such close confinement, and nothing else 
to do but watch the people around me, I really felt as if I knew 
them, at least as characters. Given time to watch, a quiet observer 
gains much more than unreliable first impressions; he watches 
people when they don’t think they’re being watched. He sees their 
range of expressions, sometimes put-on, sometimes unmasked. The 
dynamics of a face can add up to one dominant quality, a true distil- 
late of the mask that is friendly, arrogant, submissive, calculating, 
bitter, intelligent, or dull-witted. And actions reflect the face. 

Does he check his reflection in a passing window? Does she talk 
much and listen little? The stance, is it natural, or affected? Eyes 
opaque, guarded, and evasive, or warm and receptive? Head carried 
high or low? These things tell so much, and after observing a group 
of strangers for a time I find I am instinctively drawn to some of 
them, and not to others. 

I felt as if I knew those people on the bus, and more, saw in 
them other people I knew. The conducteur who aroused such blazing 
dislike was a type familiar to me. The boy with the broken teeth was 
a hard worker, kept to himself, and I thought he was probably a 
good kid. I couldn’t imagine why he’d felt compelled to insult the 
bimbo in the lime-green dress. No doubt she started it. I recognized 
“The Chinese Woman,” hiding her shallow coquetry behind a veil of 
modesty. The mothers with their stoic acceptance of whatever new 
hardship came their way, Ken the peripatetic Australian with his 
cheery, wasting restlessness, the poor woman on the train who had 
lost her money, even the bimbo’s defiant facade of dignity — I knew 
them all. 

I only wished I could stand apart and observe myself that way, 
as another stranger on the bus. That would be a great step along the 
road of knowing that character I had so much trouble getting out- 
side of, for no matter how well I got to know him from the inside, I 
could never manage to objectify him completely, could never sit back 
and evaluate his mask. In some ways it seemed he was more distant 
to me than any of the other people on the bus. 


191 




The " Coaster ” — with backup vehicles on roof. 
Somewhere between Ngaoundere and Garoua. 


192 





Like many West African countries, Cameroon is divided into two 
distinct zones: a humid region of rainforests and Christianity in the 
south, and a dry northern area of savanna and Islam. The south is 
blessed by the ocean winds, the north damned by the ever-encroach- 
ing Sahara. The differences between the two are profound, not just 
in weather, topography, and religion, but in the cultures, the tribes, 
their dress, even their intoxicants. In the north palm wine gives 
way to millet beer (except for the teetotalling Muslims). 

Political conflicts between north and south are rife in these West 
African countries, and this has brought civil war in Chad, and re- 
peated coups and uprisings in Nigeria and throughout the chain of 
tiny countries along the Atlantic coast. Without the colonial imposi- 
tion of artificial borders, all of these tribes would surely have allied 
and divided themselves differently. But that is a familiar story 
throughout Africa. 

In Cameroon, the central power from the south posted soldiers 
to keep watch on the hostile north, home of the troublesome former 
leader, Ahidjo. The nearby borders of Nigeria and Chad, both 
troubled countries, only increased the tension. 

The train from Yaounde to Ngaoundere had carried us from one 
“sub-country” to the other, and the bus to Garoua had introduced us 
to the more sophisticated of its people, those who traveled between 
cities. Now we would meet the people who seldom left their remote 
compounds of mud and grass. For this day David’s itinerary an- 
nounced, 'We leave the beaten track.” While this was true meta- 
phorically, the reality was quite the opposite. For the next few days 
we would travel roads that were, literally speaking, beaten tracks. 

We started out of Garoua on a wide boulevard, which led to the 
airport and the small road we would take to the north. David 
warned us to keep our cameras hidden, as security was particularly 
tight there. A vast area was enclosed by concrete walls and barbed 


193 



The Masked Rider 


wire, and soldiers in jeeps and motorcycles patrolled the roads 
around the perimeter, giving us looks as they passed. 

Beyond the airport we passed a few ragged cotton fields, then 
entered a truly desolate land. The rough track was disturbed by 
little traffic, perhaps one vehicle in an hour, and the flat landscape 
was interrupted only by sculpted anthills and a barren ridge in the 
distance, everything vibrating with heat. In places the ground was 
blackened by grassfires, set before the rains to wash the fertile ash 
into the earth. 

I rode on ahead, steering around the worst ruts and the biggest 
stones, and bogging down in occasional sandpits. Sometimes I found 
a firmer track on the narrow goatpaths beside the road, but I saw no 
goats, and though a few thatched huts appeared among the thorns, I 
saw no people. The arid heat tended to mute any smells, but the sa- 
vanna had one subtle fragrance that tingled my nostrils from time 
to time. Some desert rose perhaps, some perfume of the savanna, 
wafted through the thin air like incense. The savanna had its music 
too, the soft lament of the mourning dove, as lonely as the land. 

A sudden attack of stomach distress (that well-water the day be- 
fore) obliged me to lay my bike beside the road and stumble through 
the thorns. While I answered nature’s indelicate call, I heard the 
sound of tires on gravel, and looked up to see Leonard’s bandana- 
covered head cruise by above the bushes. Absorbed in the process of 
elimination, I didn’t call out to him, but I wondered if he had seen 
my bicycle laying in the grass, or if he still thought I was ahead of 
him. As it happened, he did miss the bicycle; he did think I was still 
in front of him, and thus he missed our siesta stop in Hama 
Koussou, one of my most pleasant memories of Cameroon. 

The village of Hama Koussou huddled under a cluster of trees, 
its small houses circular or square, and made of dry mud, laid on a 
handful at a time. The roofs were neatly thatched into cones and 
pyramids. We parked our bikes under a big tree in the middle, then 
sat on a bench in the shade. I leaned back against a rough wall of 
mud, studded with tiny pink and white stones which sparkled like 
quartz in the sun. 

At first the place seemed deserted, but as we settled ourselves a 
tall man emerged from the turret-shaped hut beside us. He was 
dark, mustached, and handsome in a knee-length white shirt and 
white trousers, and was followed by a pair of small boys, similarly 


194 



Neil Peart 


dressed. The man bowed slightly, gave us a smile of welcome, and 
responded to our greetings in formal, unpractised French. David 
asked if we might buy some drinks, and the man spoke to the boys. 
They ran off to fetch a case of Mirinda orange soda, and a rolled-up 
mat of woven grass, which the man spread for us between the tree 
and the wall. Then the boys brought a cushion for each of us, four 
embroidered orange pillows. Charmed and almost embarrassed by 
the generosity of our reception, we paid for our drinks and thanked 
the man, but he denied our gratitude in the way of country people 
everywhere. It seemed to be no more than he would expect if he 
came to our village. 

A few of the boys gathered under the tree, glancing at us shyly 
and talking among themselves. They were pleasant-faced and 
healthy -looking, skin very dark but with a slight Oriental cast to 
their eyes. Most wore the long white shirts and trousers, but some 
had western-style shorts and T-shirts. Our host had taught us the 
local greeting, makonya, and the boys smiled as we struggled with 
the pronunciation. One silent little girl stood among them, a hand 
on her hip to hold up an over-large cotton dress, as she stared at us 
with dark, diffident eyes. 

A few chickens scratched in the dirt, and a pair of black-and- 
brown goats nosed around the houses. One or two mopeds and a few 
bicycles were the only traffic to disturb this peaceful setting, and 
what perfect hospitality. We had been welcomed, made comfortable, 
then left alone. 

I took Aristotle from my left pannier and lay back on the mat, 
resting my head on the pillow and alternately reading and dozing. I 
waved away a fly now and again, and woke once to brush a lizard 
from my head, but perfect tranquility reigned in Hama Koussou. 
Not just timeless, but outside-of-time, a friendly and patient way of 
life which was all but unchanged from decade to decade. I lay look- 
ing up into the leaves of the acacia, listening to the quiet buzz of 
conversation among the villagers on the other side of the tree, and 
smiled to myself, Tm living in a National Geographic documentary!’ 

In mid-afternoon, some unspoken signal brought an end to si- 
esta-time — for the women anyway. Wives and daughters appeared 
on the road with their buckets and calabashes, going to fetch water 
from the well across the road. They wore bright-colored pagnes and 
kerchiefs, with T-shirts or castoff western blouses, and for the first 


19 $ 



The Masked Rider 


time I realized why this seemed incongruous. Even in Yaounde, 
where some women dressed in beautiful pagnes and matching 
headscarves of imported cloth, the upper body was clothed in white 
silk blouses, and it hadn’t seemed right somehow, not “traditional.” 
But now I understood. When the government had decreed that 
women had to cover their breasts, there was no traditional clothing 
for such a purpose. A few of the women I’d seen along the road from 
Garoua had walked unselfconsciously topless, as these people had 
for hundreds of years, but in the village the women seemed, if not 
more modest, then perhaps more observant of government edicts. 

The afternoon hush was broken by the labored chugging of a 
one-cylinder engine. Following the sound with my eyes, I saw black 
smoke puffing out of a hole in a nearby hut and peeked through a 
small window-opening. A wizened, half-naked old man tended a 
Rube Goldberg machine, and he gave me a toothless smile as I 
watched the little engine shuddering and bouncing against its moor- 
ings. It turned a long canvas belt around a complex set of pulleys to 
drive a millet-grinder. The women poured calabashes full of dried 
kernels in one end, and collected the powdered flour from the other 
— a big improvement on their traditional mortars and pestles. 

This machine, the bottles of Mirinda, and our little group were 
the only signs of the twentieth century in Hama Koussou, and the 
chugging engine made a good signal for us to get moving. It was 
now mid-afternoon, the worst of the heat was passed, and we had 
ten miles still to travel. I didn’t khow that I was on the way from 
one of my best experiences in Cameroon, to one of my worst. 

An hour and a half later I reached Dembo, and Leonard hailed 
me from just off the road. I saw him sprawled under a tree, and 
joined him in the circle of shade. He told me he hadn’t noticed the 
sign for Hama Koussou, or didn’t remember agreeing to meet there, 
but he had been just fine for the last three hours, laying under this 
tree while the local women brought him water. I laughed at the 
mock-proud toss of his head, and asked him if there was anywhere 
to buy drinks. He pointed over his head to a cluster of mud-brown 
buildings. 

I left my bicycle with Leonard and walked over, but saw nothing 
that suggested a shop. Just up the road I spied a group of men 
climbing down from a truck, so I went to ask one of them. A soldier 


196 



Neil Peart 


in olive-drab stood among them, and I decided he might be more 
likely to speak French, so I would ask him. Bad idea. 

I walked up to him and asked, very politely, if he knew where I 
could buy something to drink. He said nothing, just looked at me 
sullenly. I started to repeat the question, when he cut me off with a 
grunt. “Oil allez-vous?” Startled, I tried to explain where I was go- 
ing, the nature of our trip, but he interrupted again, “Donnez-moi 
vos papiers.” A little alarmed by his belligerence, and by the auto- 
matic weapon on his shoulder, I gave him my passport, and while he 
examined it I gave him a closer look. Then I noticed the bad thing - — 
he was very, very drunk. His body wobbled and twitched as he tried 
to keep his balance, his words were slurred, eyes clouded, and his 
bloated belly stuck out of his unbuttoned olive-drab shirt. I looked 
again at the automatic rifle, which Leonard later told me was a 7.62 
millimeter, NATO-Class, French-made automatic assault weapon. I 
noticed its oily sheen, like the beer-sweat on the soldier’s face. 

Next he demanded my vaccination certificate, something no one 
in Cameroon had ever asked to see, as he tried to control his obvi- 
ously numb lips. I tried to control my rising temper, and handed 
over the yellow booklet. Passing villagers gave the two of us a quick 
sidelong glance, then moved by hurriedly on the other side of the 
road, eyes turned away. The wobbly soldier examined the booklet 
with the careful dignity of the very drunk, then began to shake his 
head, telling me it was no good. When I argued that all my shots 
were up to date, he pointed to the cholera shot and the date below it 
and repeated “ Pas bon. Pas bon” 

Under my breath I muttered, “Bullshit.” 

I answered his continuing questions through clenched teeth — I 
knew I had to be cool. A soldier in this remote place was king; he 
could do as he wanted, drunk, sober, or crazy. My imagination saw 
that this belligerent drunk with the automatic rifle dangling from 
his shoulder might be capable of anything. He had problems; maybe 
he was a psychopath. He could even shoot me and claim I’d been at 
fault. Behind the masks of democracy and freedom, this was nothing 
more than a Third World police state, and I meant nothing there. 

“Attendez la,” he ordered gruffly, wait there, and he staggered 
away with my passport and vaccination booklet, leaving me stand- 
ing in the road while he disappeared behind a woven-grass wall. 
What should I do? What could I do? I couldn’t call a cop; I couldn’t 


197 



The Masked Rider 


hope for the arrival of the others — that was only liable to make it 
worse. I could do nothing but control my anger and try to ride out 
this ridiculous, yet dangerous, situation. The problem might have 
been defused by a note of the proper denomination, but I couldn’t be 
sure. That too might have made it worse. 

He returned a minute later, adjusting his trousers beneath the 
fat belly, and I realised he’d been “called away” by another symptom 
of the very drunk: a beer-soaked bladder. The interrogation contin- 
ued, as he slurred out his questions about my reason for being in 
Dembo, in Cameroon, and where I thought I was going to stay. I told 
him we usually stayed in hotels, but he cut me off. “ Pas d’hdtels ici. 
Pas d’hdtels.” At a loss for an alternative, I remembered David men- 
tioning that we might stay in a school, a “makeshift dormitory,” so I 
tried that. “Peut-etre nous pouvons rester dans une ecole.” 

“II y a une ecole , oui but then he shook his head stubbornly, re- 
peating, “Mais il n’y a pas d’hotel.” He was a textbook example of 
the “mean drunk” everyone has encountered, suspicious, conten- 
tious, surly, repetitive, and potentially violent. The main difference 
was that I had more to fear than a wild, reeling punch — this mean 
drunk was fingering the stock of his loaded and well-oiled 7.62 mm. 
NATO-Class automatic assault weapon, in a remote village where no 
one would dare interfere. I was staring evil in the face, and yet he 
was only another drunken boor, if you took away the gun. 

Now he wanted to know my occupation, and automatically I re- 
plied “businessman,” an answer usually boring enough to discourage 
further inquiries, while “musician” is always an invitation to more 
boring questions. But this tireless interrogator wanted to know 
what kind of business, and, groping for something that would be un- 
derstandable and innocent to him, I came up with my former occu- 
pation, “farm equipment.” But that too went wrong. Now he thought 
I was not only a spy, but an illegal merchant as well, here on my bi- 
cycle to sell International Harvester tractors to farmers who tilled 
their crops with cutlasses, and he got even nastier. I’d told him my 
bicycle was under a tree yonder, with my waiting friend, and finally 
he demanded to see this friend and sent me to fetch him. He still 
clutched my vital papers in one hand, and the loaded and well-oiled 
7.62 mm. NATO-Class automatic assault weapon in the other. 

Still shaking with rage and anxiety, I stalked over to Leonard’s 
tree, gave him a summary and asked him to come with me. But 


198 



Neil Peart 


when Leonard and I pushed our bikes up to the soldier, suddenly his 
whole manner changed. I saw a dull surprise come over his sagging 
features, and his bleary eyes widened a fraction when he saw that 
my friend was black. He dropped his belligerent manner at once, 
took his hand off the gun and reached out to shake Leonard’s hand, 
his head nodding on sleepy springs. He mumbled some French to an 
uncomprehending Leonard, gave his passport a cursory look, then 
handed me my own papers. I took them with the mechanical re- 
sponse of a robot, completely stunned, as the soldier stumbled be- 
hind the wall again to relieve his insistent bladder. By Leonard’s 
skin my own was saved. 


Leonard’s skin was the subject of great interest from the chief of 
Dembo as well. When the others arrived, David found the chief and 
arranged to stay in his guest house and have a meal prepared (all 
for a modest fee, of course) and the chief invited us to sit in a row of 
lawn chairs beside his chaise longue. He asked about our travels 
and our homes, and when I said that Leonard was from California, 
the chief raised his eyebrows. “II est Americain?” he echoed, “mais il 
est comme moi” pointing to the skin on his arm, “comme un filbert” 
And the chief laughed a little at his simile. 

<r What’s he say?” Leonard asked. 

"He says you look like a nut,” I translated loosely. 

Leonard nodded slowly at the chief, freezing a quizzical smile. 
The chief then asked David and me if there were many black people 
in America, displaying the same surprising unawareness of African 
history as the family near Kumba. This time we just gave him the 
facts, didn’t even try to explain it. David and I told him there were 
many black people in America, and left it at that. 

The chief reminded me of the later years of Duke Ellington, the 
same aspect of aristocracy in decline. While he lay back in his chair 
with his feet up — to reduce the discomfort of his diabetes he said — 
he told us he was sixty-two, had thirty-eight children, and had been 
chief of the Dembo area for twenty years. Like the Fons in the 
Northwest Province, his chiefly duties consisted largely in arbitrat- 
ing land and domestic disputes for his chiefdom of more than two 
thousand people. 


199 



The Masked Rider 


Some of the chief's children crept up to look at us, though they 
maintained a respectful distance (from the chief, not from us). Six 
little princelings clustered under a tree to one side, while six darling 
princesses huddled on the porch behind us. None came any closer 
unless they were bidden. The same distance and obeisance were 
shown by two village elders who called on the chief. The courtiers 
crept up and sat on the ground, never approaching closer than 
twenty feet, and spoke to him with their faces averted, never ad- 
dressing him directly. They conversed as equals — friendly tone, 
shared smiles — yet the courtiers were bound by strict protocol. 
And observing that strict protocol, I suffered a flash of mortification. 

Without thinking, I had pulled off my shoes and socks to inspect 
a burning itch on the arches of my feet, some kind of spreading in- 
fection, and I began soaking a bandana from my water bottle and 
rinsing off the raw patches of flesh. The flies were impressed, but I 
doubted the chief was, and I put on my shoes and socks and tried to 
look contrite. The chief finished his conversation with the courtiers, 
and turned back to us. He wished us a good trip, then waved his 
hand to one of the princelings, who led us away. 

The chief's guest quarters were from the same National Geo- 
graphic special as Hama Koussou. A high-walled courtyard enclosed 
two round huts, thatched in the shape of inverted tops. The open 
area between the huts was floored in gravel, and roofed over with a 
network of serpent-shaped sticks supporting grass mats. Two plastic 
basins of water made a bathroom, and a concrete-lined hole in the 
ground provided the other necessary amenity. An old sealed-beam 
unit made a perfect cap over the hole. 

With water so scarce in the north, David taught us an economi- 
cal way of bathing: one small bowl of water to soak the cloth and 
soap yourself, then another bowl to scrub and rinse with. That way 
we would each use no more than two soup-bowls, and have clean 
water left to filter for our water bottles. By the time we had cleaned 
up and pumped some water through the filters, night was making 
its swift descent. A kerosene lantern was hung from one of the ser- 
pent-shaped sticks, and a wizened old woman brought our supper. 
We sat on the gravel in the dim light, fingering lumps of ugali , a 
dough-like rice paste, and dipping it into a sauce of meat and okra. 
The spices burned on my dry, cracked lips, but I’d had little to eat 
since an omelette in Garoua, at six in the morning. 


200 



Neil Peart 


One of the round thatched huts had been swept out for us to 
sleep in, and Elsa and Annie spread their sleeping bags on a sagging 
double bed, the only stick of furniture. The air inside seemed hot 
and stuffy, and the hard floor uninviting, so I joined David and 
Leonard on the gravel outside, laying my bed beneath the grass 
matting. Peace settled over the compound. In this province no ve- 
hicles were allowed to travel by night; no electricity meant no blar- 
ing TVs or radios, and there were not even any insects buzzing in 
the trees. Considering our outdoor bivouac, that was a good thing. 

It had been almost a textbook day’s travel in Cameroon: Om- 
elette and Nescafe near the truck park in Garoua, barbed wire and 
paranoia around the airport, the perfume of the savanna, the call of 
the mourning dove, a diarrhea attack in the thorns, the siesta in 
Hama Koussou, the drunken, white -man-hating soldier with his 
7.62 mm. NATO-Class automatic assault weapon. Then everything 
had changed again. We met Chief Duke Ellington, who was sur- 
prised to learn there were lots of filbert - colored people in the United 
States and rented his guest quarters with the thatched huts, the 
plastic basins of water, and the sealed-beam unit over the shit-hole. 

Shaking my head at the whole bizarre continent of Africa, I 
turned on my little flashlight, leaned it on my shoulder, and picked 
up Dear Theo : 


To think how many people there are who exist 
without ever having the slightest idea what care is, and 
who always keep on thinking that everything will turn 
out for the best, as if there were no people starving or 
altogether ruined! It grieves me when I am always in a 
bad fix. What colour is in a picture, enthusiasm is in life; 
therefore, it is no little thing to try to keep that enthu- 
siasm. 


201 




Traffic jam in northern Cameroon. 


202 



fiixots ar.<! pasimoio 



The goats scrambled out of my path as I pedaled away from 
Dembo at sunrise. A pair of doves bathed in the dust of the road 
ahead, then with a chuk-chuk of alarm and a flash of white tail-feath- 
ers, flew up into the last of the trees. I was into open country once 
more, the savanna of dry grass and thorny scrub, everywhere studded 
with boulders. By 7:30 a hot breeze came rising across the plains, car- 
rying the honeysuckle-like perfume. Charred grass stretched away to 
a line of jagged hills. 

The road continued its alternating torments: treacherous pits of 
sandy gravel, bone-jarring washboard, and stretches of bare rocks, 
like a dry river bed, which sent me bouncing from stone to stone. I 
had one bad moment as I coasted down a hill; my front wheel caught 
in the gravel and sent me slewing sideways toward a ravine. I 
jumped off the bike and stood at the brink, heart pounding, and 
watched a spiral of vultures winding in a high double helix off to the 
west. 

Rapidite, Securite , Confort” said the signboard on the passing 
minibus, the first vehicle I’d seen all day. The only travelers I’d met 
in nearly three hours had been on old bicycles, a moped, and a don- 
key. For myself, I was not making much rapidite , and not traveling 
with much confort either, but I was about to encounter the securite. 

A whole crowd of police and soldiers appeared at the roadside up 
ahead, and my nerves began to tense. David had told us this check- 
point in Dourbeye was particularly strict, as it intersected a road 
coming in from Nigeria, less than ten miles away. A young police- 
man waved me over, but to my relief he was smiling, polite and so- 
ber. He even made a little joke, telling me that I would have to go in- 
side and see the officer, but my bike would be safe here — gesturing 
at the crowd of soldiers and policemen, all bristling with weapons. I 
no longer shared his confidence in Cameroon’s Finest, but appreci- 
ated his pleasantness. 


203 



The Masked Rider 


A portly functionary in mufti sat behind his desk and looked 
through my passport. Though my anti-authoritarian guard was still 
up, he was friendly enough, and since he was from the south, at 
least he asked his endless questions in English. When he asked 
where I had received my visa and I told him Ottawa, he was proud 
to tell me that his brother was the ambassador to Canada. Together 
we marveled over that, then he sent me out to be "registered” by the 
young policeman, who added me to a list of foreigners who had 
passed through Dourbeye. It was not a long list. 

The chief of Dembo had provided no breakfast, so I pedaled 
along the short row of mud-walled buildings in Dourbeye, searching 
for beignets. Stopping in front of a little shop, I leaned my bike 
against a withered tree and stepped into the shadows. A smiling 
little man in white robe and headgear sold me a Fanta, and I chose 
a baguette from the sticks of bread stacked like firewood. On the 
front stoop I sat down with my bottle of warm soda, chewing my ba- 
guette and nodding to a couple of local men. A young girl strolled up 
with a basket of beignets , held them out to me without a word, and I 
bought a couple of doughy lumps to supplement my breakfast of dry 
bread and orange pop. 

“D’ou venez-vous?” asked one of the men idling on the stoop. 

I told him I was coming from Dembo today, but was from 
Canada. The other one, a large warm-featured man, smiled and nod- 
ded, “Ca-na-da!” and raised his bottle of 33 Export beer in a toast to 
i( Zhor-zhe Boosh.” Translated as "George Bush,” who had only days 
before been elected president of the United States, this meant he 
thought Bush was the new president of Canada too. A more nation- 
alistic Canadian might have been outraged — how Canadians hate 
to be mistaken for Americans! — but I smiled and explained that 
Canada was a separate country from les Etats Unis, and Zhor-zhe 
Boosh wasn’t our new president. The man smiled too, but shook his 
head in dubious wonder; he didn’t really believe me. I asked them 
how far it was to Tchevi, and the two men and the shop-owner fell 
into a discussion in their own language, seeming to disagree over 
the correct answer. They finally decided it must be ten kilometers — 
it would prove to be twenty. 

I mounted up again and struggled onward until midday, then 
stopped at a village well to fill my water bottles. I’d been drinking 
until I was tired of it, but still felt dehydrated. While I waited for a 
woman to fill her bucket from the spigot, her little boy looked up at 


204 



Neil Peart 


me and burst out crying. I felt terrible, but his mother laughed and 
patted him tenderly, soothing his fear of the White Man. 

Up the road I found a circle of shade under a bushy tree, just in 
front of the whitewashed walls of a neat compound, and settled my- 
self against the trunk. I unfolded my pagne and spread it over my 
legs to keep the flies off, nibbled on the rest of my breakfast ba- 
guette, and read a little Aristotle. My eyes grew heavy and I lay back 
with a bandana over my face to doze for awhile. I awoke to the 
sound of footsteps, and a young man walked over and squatted be- 
fore me, saying something I didn’t understand. On the mat he 
placed two brown yams, like baked potatoes, and mimed to me that 
they were hot. I thanked him in French and English, but he under- 
stood neither, so we traded smiles instead. When he was gone I 
picked up one of the baked yams and took a bite; it was pungent, 
and turned to paste in my mouth. I finished the first one, each bite 
washed down with the evil -tasting well water, but I couldn’t face the 
second. Not to be rude, I hid it in my pack and took it with me when 
I left, then later presented it to an appreciative goat. 

My companions had passed their siesta a little behind me, and 
caught up just as I started off again. We rode together for a time, a 
rare event these days. The road of white dust, blinding in the after- 
noon sun, gave way to a rutted, rocky track over steep hills. On one 
of them, so rough that Annie got off to walk, I followed Leonard up 
between the rocks. I treated the two of them to another display of 
“break dancing” when my wheel was knocked sideways, tipping the 
bike over to land, once again, on top of me. After some major curs- 
ing, I got up and dusted myself off. Annie and Leonard were im- 
pressed by the stunt, as well as my .colorful language. 

Leonard and I moved ahead of the others, riding together but 
without talking. It was too hot, the cycling too hard, and the land- 
scape too humbling — all that barren space. Finally we reached an 
island of green, the village of Tchevi. Its two rows of huts, some 
round and some square, lined each side of the road, and were 
roughly plastered of reddish mud, with the cone-shaped roofs neatly 
thatched in graying straw. 

The inevitable barricade appeared, and a small bus was already 
stopped there, its back door open and the passengers cowering in- 
side. A uniformed officer was checking their papers, and he looked 
up and waved us to the side of the road. Just beyond the barricade 


205 



The Masked Rider 


was a junction with another east-west route from Nigeria, so this 
would be another sensitive checkpoint. Leonard and I straddled our 
dusty bikes and waited, drinking the last of our water and relaxing 
in the knowledge that we had reached our destination. 

When the gray-shirted policeman finally waved the bus on its 
way, we had our passports ready. He beckoned to someone, and I 
looked over as a tall, heavy man in civilian clothes ambled across 
the road toward us. He greeted Leonard and me in English, telling 
us that he was an off-duty officer, and was originally from the En- 
glish-speaking south. So at least Leonard was able to answer for 
himself as the officer leafed through his passport, then looked up at 
him with raised eyebrows. 

“You are American?” 

“Yes.” 

“ Black American?” 

“Yes.” 

'You were born there?” Once again, an African who was shocked 
by a black American. 

'Yes,” nodded Leonard, then changed the subject, and asked him 
where we might be able to buy a drink. Eyebrows slowly descending, 
the officer turned and pointed to one of the huts at the junction, 
where a group of men and boys sat in the shade. Satisfied that we 
were probably not spies, he handed back our passports and waved 
us on. 

We cycled across the dusty roundabout and stopped before the 
bemused group of Tchevians, all of them in pale Muslim robes, and 
staring up at us with open curiosity. They spoke no English or 
French, so we had a difficult time making ourselves understood. 
Mystified looks and shaking heads greeted my question, “Est-ce 
qu’on peut acheter quelque-chose a boire?” Blank faces turned at an 
angle, regarding me woodenly. 

Then Leonard tried. “Coca-Cola?” “Fanta?” miming a bottle 
raised to his lips. Still nothing. 

“Du soda ? Orange en bouteille?” 

“Drink? Pop? Sprite?” said Leonard, “Pamplemousse?” At this 
there was a murmur of understanding, and an old man gestured 
with his thin arm toward the neighboring hut, muttering something 
to one of the boys. The boy disappeared into the doorway, then reap- 
peared with a proud smile. He walked up to Leonard with his hands 


206 



Neil Peart 


behind his back, and held out the prize to us with a flourish. As we 
laughed and shook our heads, the boy’s hand fell slowly, and there 
was more mystified talking. It was, after all, what we had asked for 
— a pamplemousse, ripe, yellow, and round. 

The English-speaking officer rode up, his great bulk dwarfing a 
motorbike, and told us he knew where to find drinks. We followed 
him down the road which came in from Nigeria, and stopped before 
a high mud wall. He squeezed himself through a gate, then returned 
with a tiny, wrinkled old woman, and two large bottles of Ibp orange 
soda. He loosened the caps for us, and we gratefully tipped the 
bottles up, swallowing the warm, overly-sweet liquid. Leonard had 
just paid for the first round, when I pulled out some more francs 
and asked for another two bottles. The officer sent the old woman off 
to fetch them, and later Leonard pointed out that our friend had 
paid her part of the money, then pocketed the rest himself. 

When the others arrived, David went off to find a place to stay, 
and soon we followed him along a narrow dirt track, between 
earthen walls and thatched dwellings. At the end of the street we 
halted before an archway, where an ancient man sat dozing against 
the wall, an enormous cutlass dangling from his waist. Leonard 
snickered, “Look at this 'sentry/ it would take the old guy half an 
hour just to lift that blade!” 

The old man’s eyes half opened, and he pulled himself slowly to 
his feet, straightening one limb at a time. The great cutlass swayed 
against his unsteady knees as he turned to bid us enter. We left our 
bicycles under his questionable protection, put on our long trousers 
and pagnes, and ducked through the arch and into the dimness of a 
large room, the chief’s audience chamber. I reminded myself of the 
proprieties and protocol in the presence of a chief: no shaking 
hands, no crossing your legs, and no admiring the sores on your 
feet. 

A white-robed figure reclined in a canvas chair, and the five of 
us smiled and nodded to him, wishing a chorus of bonsoirs as we sat 
in a row of wooden chairs. In his mid-thirties, this was a younger 
chief than the previous night’s host in Dembo. His handsome fea- 
tures had a North African cast, thin lips over white teeth, and a 
neat beard. His aristocratic head was topped by an embroidered 
Muslim prayer cap, and even in repose he was obviously tall, his 


207 



The Masked Rider 


length accentuated by a white robe over light blue synthetic trou- 
sers — with a permanent crease. 

David and I answered the chief’s questions about where we’d 
been and where we were going, and in eloquent French he told us 
that his domain included about a thousand people, and that he had 
been schooled at home in Tchevi, then in Garoua. Like so many 
other Africans, he was especially interested in Leonard, and it fell to 
me to tell Leonard’s life story one more time. Oui , il est Americain. 
Oui , Americain noir. Yes, he was born in the U.S. No, he didn’t know 
his ethnic group. 

While David answered the next question, I noticed the chief’s el- 
egant white shoes. They had once been stylish and low-cut in the 
Italian mode, but now were very old, the leather wrinkled and worn, 
though obviously often polished by his sleepy old retainer. Most tell- 
ing of all, they had no laces. As I was daydreaming, spinning an im- 
age of the impoverished aristocrat striving to keep up appearances, I 
felt a sudden pain in my ankle — David was kicking me. Startled, I 
focused back in, and noticed that the chief was looking at me point- 
edly. I removed the foot I had unthinkingly placed upon the other 
knee, which must have been close enough to crossing my legs to be 
offensive, and muttered an embarrassed “pardon” 

The chief led us into the courtyard of his compound, which was 
enclosed by rough walls of hand-laid mud and round huts with 
pointy thatched roofs. Stooping to pass through one of the doorways, 
we stepped into the aromatic dimness of a stable, where a squat 
dwarfish man with wall-eyes and a hunched back tended a pony- 
sized horse. This sparked another mental image of the tall, white- 
robed chief astride this diminutive Rocinante, the white shoes drag- 
ging on the ground, squired by the wobbly old guard with his enor- 
mous cutlass, and the misshapen groom. 

The far side of the stable led to another little courtyard and a 
crude structure opposite: a shelter of hand-shaped gray blocks with 
a flat roof of corrugated metal. The wall-eyed hunchback brought 
carpets to lay over the gravel floor, while the chief engaged David in 
bargaining for our food and lodging. David came away from that dis- 
cussion shaking his head — apparently our host wanted hotel 
prices. I smiled and pointed to our quarters. “Just like the itinerary 
promised: rustic accommodations, a makeshift dormitory.” 


208 



Neil Peart 


Over the walls of the compound rose two monumental hills of 
boulders, like towers which had collapsed into heaps of stone. The 
sun had fallen below the mound to the west, and the light became 
soft and lambent. The hunchback brought us two buckets of water, 
and we took turns washing in a side courtyard, changing, and lay- 
ing out our beds. As I ministered once more to the raw flesh on the 
arches of my feet, washing and spreading antibiotic cream on them, 
I watched David and Leonard trying to get Elsa’s camera working. 
The constant pounding had finally shaken it senseless, and no one 
could make it work again. 

Without looking at me, she remarked, “Well, I guess Til have to 
depend on Neil for my photographs. You seem to take the kind of 
pictures I want anyway.” 

Startled, I didn’t know how to respond to such an oblique re- 
quest, simply saying a noncommital “Sure.” 

It was soon dark, and when I was organized for the night, I sat 
down on my sleeping bag and leaned against the rough wall to read 
until dinner arrived. The flashlight on my shoulder cast a white 
circle on the pages of Dear Theo. Leonard sat back on his space be- 
side me, half-dozing against the wall. Then just as the hunchback 
came through the courtyard bearing two large pots of food, Annie 
sidled over to me. “Um ... I just wondered ... Neil ... like, could I talk 
to you?” 

“Uh, yeah, sure.” I closed my book with a mental ‘oh-oh.’ 

She moved from side to side like a child before a crowd, her eyes 
alternately closing, or looking away, but never meeting mine. “Well 
... I was just wondering, like — do I really bug you or something?” 
My mind went racing: 'Oh shit. What a jerk I’ve been. Now she 
thinks I really hate her.’ Leonard shifted uneasily beside me, then 
rose to his feet and moved around us to walk into the other room for 
dinner. My responses were confused; initially I suppose I was em- 
barrassed — for her, for Leonard, and for myself. I was genuinely 
stunned by her question, and mentally flipped through all the times 
I’d been short with her, or flashed her a “look.” I realized I’d given 
Annie a hard time sometimes about her thoughtlessness, but I didn’t 
want her to think it was more than that, and I was stung by this 
sudden understanding. Knowing that she evidently cared what I felt 
about her gave me a pang of guilt and regret. 


209 



The Masked Rider 


My confused reactions left me at a loss for the appropriate thing 
to say. The best I could manage was a mumbled negative, “Ah, no... 
no,” to which she replied, “That’s good. I know I can be a pain some- 
times.” I made a small laugh and shuffled past her into the other 
room, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to leave it at that. 'Later,’ I 
thought, Til talk to her about this later.’ 

Our meal was a thin stew of bony fish chunks, boiled yams, and 
a few bottles of Fanta, and had been laid out on the floor of a barren 
white-washed cell. The single, glaring fluorescent tube was incon- 
gruous and, as always, ugly. The lone window-hole admitted no air, 
so when I had finished eating I strolled out into the courtyard to ad- 
mire the sharp stars. Mini-Rocinante moved in his stable, stirring 
the straw on the floor, and the air smelled of baked dust and stones. 

Early mornings make for early nights, and before long a row of 
dark figures lay stretched on their sleeping bags. The carpets over 
the gravel floor made a tolerably comfortable bed, firm certainly, but 
at least a little resilient. David remained reading in the cell a while 
longer, the harsh fluorescent glare spilling through the tiny window, 
but it was soon extinguished. A few flashlights were the only points 
of light in the utter darkness, shining down on books, diaries, and 
postcards. One by one they too went out, until I felt my own drowsi- 
ness blurring the words. I closed my book, lay the pocket flash near 
at hand, and turned on my side. 

As on the previous night, we were spared any flying and biting 
insects, but I soon became aware of a tickling sensation on my legs. 
The night was too warm to have my sleeping bag fastened, and I 
had left one side open, and something was crawling around on me. 
Lizard? Scorpion? Snake? I aimed my flashlight down and saw two 
lines of big ants trailing across my legs, a regular Ant Interstate. 

I had endured enough by this time to be monumentally 
unimpressed. Along with fastidiousness and the niceties of personal 
hygiene, squeamishness had also departed, and I just brushed the 
ants away. All through that night, whenever I felt an ant crawling 
on me, I simply reached down, crushed it between my fingers, and 
tossed it away into the dark. 


The chief appeared soon after breakfast, tall and elegant in fresh 
robes, his dark head wrapped in a scarf of small red-and-white 


210 



Neil Peart 


checks, and sandals in place of the white shoes. He looked every bit 
the romantic desert prince, and Leonard wanted to take a photo- 
graph. As I translated his request, the chief turned bashful, but 
agreed with a smile, part shyness and part vanity. His hands moved 
to the checked scarf on his head and he protested, “Je n’ai pas de 
bonnet ” — I have no hat. We smiled at his concern for proper dress, 
and Leonard asked me to assure him that he looked very elegant. 
The chief stood stiffly while Leonard took the picture. We pushed 
our bicycles through the compound and out to the road, waved 
goodbye to our host and his faithful retainers, then mounted up and 
pedaled away through the long morning shadows. 

Beyond Tchevi the landscape was bleak again: yellow grass, 
thorn trees, and great formations of tumbled rock under a cloudless 
sky. The occasional lonely habitations resembled medieval for- 
tresses, walled clusters of round mud huts with thatched turret- 
tops. Pedaling along, I smiled and waved at the few people I passed, 
noting that upper-body clothing for women was optional, though 
mostly the wrinkled old women went topless. One tiny girl stared up 
from the roadside, her thin body lost inside a faded T-shirt which 
read “Visit Van City,” and a small boy wore a ragged “Dukes Of 
Hazzard” number. In The Village Of Waiting , by a one-time Peace 
Corps volunteer in Tbgo named George Packer, I had read of the Af- 
ricans’ humorous response to the clothes they were given by agen- 
cies like Goodwill. Calling them “dead yovo clothes,” they believed 
that these donated castoffs came exclusively from dead white people. 

The road began to worsen, and I was clenching my teeth and 
pounding over alternate hazards of corrugated mud, soft grit like 
kitty litter, rough stones, a dry streambed of loose rocks, a bone-jar- 
ring washboard, and back to the rippled mud and sandtraps. The 
previous night, during a discussion of our favorite subject — the evil 
roads — Elsa had said she thought the washboard was the worst of 
all. David thought it was better to speed up over them, and I agreed, 
with the additional advice that when I went shuddering over the 
violent ridges, I felt it was helpful to yell out bad words really loud. 

It was on my mind to speak with Annie properly, but every time 
I got beside her the road turned ugly, and I had to negotiate a new 
hazard. In truth, I didn’t quite know what to say, but I wanted to try 
to explain that I didn’t hate her, as she seemed to think. Once or 
twice there was a brief chance, but I hesitated, and it was too late. 
Finally a short stretch of less-violent road allowed me to ride up 


211 



The Masked Rider 


alongside her, uncomfortable but determined, and I blurted it out: 
“Listen, Annie — I’m sorry if I made you feel I didn’t like you. I feel 
bad about that.” 

“Oh, well ...” She wriggled her shoulders and moved her head 
from side to side eloquently. “Well, I ...” 

“I think it’s just that we’re such different people, and — I sup- 
pose I get impatient. But it’s not that I don’t like you — I do. Maybe 
because we’re so different. I didn’t want you to think that.” 

“Oh, well ... mmm ... okay. I’m glad it isn’t true, anyway ... ah ... 
heh-heh.” 

I pedaled ahead a bit on my own, feeling better and hoping she 
did too. 

It’s good to let your feelings out, and I found it also worked very 
well on that perilous road — my bike and I were taking a pounding. 
Occasionally the road was so narrow and treacherous I was forced to 
get off and walk, and I hate that. Facing my emotions squarely, I 
turned the African sky blue with curses, and I discovered that be- 
cause of this direct release of frustration, the anger lasted only as 
long as the particular torment — the minefield, sandtrap, or wash- 
board — and I was afterwards purged of any bitterness. I might 
spend miles and hours growling to myself and swearing out loud, 
my mind turned sour by the battering, but at the end of the day 
when I got off my bike, I felt peaceful and entirely calm. There was 
a kind of therapy in all this. Good thing too. 

Between curses I did feel at peace that day, perhaps because 
some other conflicts than the road had been addressed. The episode 
with Annie had broken some barriers between us, and some within 
myself, and the night before Elsa had been forced to ask me for 
something, copies of my photos. There had been a frosty distance be- 
tween us for two weeks now, and I felt an ignoble satisfaction that 
she had been the first to break it, but Elsa asking me for a favor had 
somehow humbled both of us, and softened my feelings toward her. 

It’s nice to be given the opportunity to be magnanimous, if 
you’re up to it, and it reminded me of something John Steinbeck 
wrote, that the nicest thing you can do for someone is let them do 
something for you. 


212 






Rocinante s stable , left , in Quixote s compound. 
Tchevi. 


214 


wilsrmeler. aii* satsMitsa 



Great columns of stone began to appear above the hills to east 
and west, and photographs of the area hadn’t prepared me for the 
scale of these formations. One was pyramid-shaped, one a great 
rounded breast, yet another a spear of swirling rock, as if sculpted 
by the sea. The tallest one, a great stone phallus, would be the star 
of them all, Kapsiki. These formations, called inselbergs, were 
caused by volcanos which had eroded over the eons, leaving behind 
a vertical core of lava. 

Erosion had struck the road too. It disintegrated into a heaving 
track, then veered left into a trough between tumbled boulders and 
up through a gauntlet of thorn trees, into the village of Roumsiki. At 
the top of the hill, mean dwellings crouched on either side of the 
road, and two boys in their early ’teens came running out at me. 

I asked them where I might buy a drink, and they led me across 
the road, bombarding me with eager questions in French. Where 
was I going? Where was I coming from? Where was I going to stay? 
Where was I going to eat? Did I want a guide to Kapsiki? I held my 
hands up, palms outward, and told them there were more people 
coming behind me, and I didn’t know, and they should just attendez 
— wait. 

In the tiny kiosk, a man in pale robes and cap smiled broadly 
and wished me “bienvenue,” then asked the same questions. He 
closed by offering to cook me a dinner of the local specialty, chicken 
in peanut sauce. I nodded and smiled, “Attendez, s’il vous plait. 
Attendez,” and bought a bottle of water. I was a little shocked by the 
price of 800 francs, over three times the price in the south, but when 
I said the price was too high and tried to offer less, he told me, 'We 
have to charge 800 francs, because the hotel charges 1,000.’ Though 
I failed to follow his logic, I bought the water and a package of ba- 
nana-creme biscuits. 

The two boys were waiting to lead me back across the road to 
the pavilion of woven branches where I had parked my bike. I tried 


215 




The Masked Rider 


to ignore their persistent offers, and pulled a book from my pack to 
feign deep concentration on the thoughts of Aristotle. I hoped this 
would serve as a distraction, to them and to me. My fingers tore 
open the package of banana biscuits, but the dry wafers crumbled 
like sand in my mouth, every particle of moisture sucked out of 
them by the desert air. The ‘creme’ filling had dried into a powder of 
its chemical constituents. Not only that, there weren’t enough of 
them. 

One of the two boys wandered away, and the other closed in, ig- 
noring the Aristotle decoy and my face, which I hoped was as stonily 
impassive as an inselberg. Jean-Luc, his name was, a handsome boy 
with intelligent features and a serious, endearing manner. He told 
me in precise French of other people he’d met from Canada, how 
they had sent him postcards of the cities and the snow, and how he 
liked to guide visitors around the village and to Kapsiki. He said the 
man in the store could make us a very good meal of chicken with the 
peanut sauce, and we would find it “une bonne experience ” I nodded 
and tried to be polite, but really wished he’d just leave me alone. I 
gave up on the Aristotle gambit, and tried writing in my notebook to 
create a new diversion. 

The other boy reappeared, casually strolling into the courtyard 
carrying a curious-looking object, a small stringed instrument like a 
Cubist guitar. This wandering minstrel plucked the strings, without 
even seeming to look at me, and the dry, pure notes rang out like a 
harp. Equally casually, Jean-Luc called him over and took the in- 
strument from him. There were five strings, though since they could 
only be played open, there were also only five notes. But Jean-Luc 
plucked out a French tune, “Au clair de la lune,” and asked me if I 
knew it. When I nodded, he went on to tell me about the construc- 
tion of the instrument, carved from wood and covered with antelope 
skin, and though it was an attractive piece of work, I had my ready 
excuse: “Pas d’espace en veto” No room on the bicycle. 

As if on cue, a third boy appeared in the courtyard with a 
smaller stringed instrument, its bowl-shaped body covered with liz- 
ard skin, and a single string which was played with a small bow. 
Jean-Luc looked a question, as if to say ‘maybe this will fit on your 
silly bicycle?’ I just shook my head, but then two more boys came out 
sporting straw hats, obviously new and obviously for sale. By this 
time the parade of pedlars had become like some bizarre fashion 
show, each “model” entering with his product and parading it before 


216 



Neil Peart 


me. Five or six more boys came strolling in, offering their services as 
guides, and asking if I wanted a meal of chicken with peanut sauce. 
Then the proprietor of the little shop was back, the boys herding 
around him, to remind me that he could cook us a good meal of 
chicken with peanut sauce. How I wished the others would arrive. It 
was all I could do to nod and ignore all this high-pressure salesman- 
ship, concentrating on the writing of nothing in particular in my 
notebook. 

I began to sense something strange about all this; it was all so 
well choreographed. Like Jean-Luc, all of the boys had a carefully- 
rehearsed routine, and delivered their pitches in refined French, 
with a studied manner of fetching innocence. I had a mental image 
of all these Artful Dodgers studying at the feet of their Fagin, the 
man from the shop, groomed and schooled in their lines and tech- 
niques and sent out as bait for the tourists. 

At last my companions pedaled up the road, and I called them 
into the shade of the pavilion. This brought a new flurry of excite- 
ment to the Artful Dodgers, and each of them adopted one of the 
newcomers, following them across the road to the shop while they 
bought drinks. The boys soon realized that David was the one to 
speak with, especially in French, and I had told them that he was le 
patron , the boss, so David found himself surrounded by a mob of im- 
portuning "agents.” 

One of the most insistent was an older boy, perhaps eighteen, 
who was particularly ragged, somehow coarser than the others, and 
made more pathetic by a stunted, nearly useless left arm. The with- 
ered limb was half normal size, bent before him, and ended in a knot 
of misshapen fingers. He introduced himself as Anatole, and told 
David that he could lead us to “un village authentique,” where we 
could stay the night, and enjoy a meal of, yes, chicken with peanut 
sauce. The problem was that the village was a nine-kilometer walk 
from Roumsiki, and he wanted us to leave our bicycles behind. None 
of us was very excited about that idea. 

David went off to hunt for less remote accommodations, escorted 
by some of the Dodgers. He visited the government-run campement , 
which charged the equivalent of fifty dollars a night for nothing 
more luxurious than a hut with a view of Kapsiki, and running wa- 
ter (typically not running at the moment). While asking among the 
locals about more reasonable places, he learned that even if we 
could stay with someone in the village, we would need a special per- 


217 



The Masked Rider 


mit — the method by which the government campement protected 
its monopoly. 

On David's return to the pavilion, Anatole closed in again, assur- 
ing us that our bicycles would be completely safe in Roumsiki, and 
that if we went to his authentic village we could meet a sorcier 
(sorceror), and have a wonderful meal of et cetera. Though Anatole 
tried to put on a smile and make himself personable for us, I noticed 
that his features in repose bore the scars of his disfigurement, a 
kind of glum defensiveness, and his speech was coarse, not as 
smoothly trained as the other boys. His unhappy face deepened into 
a frown when we told him that we wouldn’t go without our bikes. 

So the five of us “took a meeting,” huddled together on the 
benches amid a circle of eager entrepreneurs who awaited our deci- 
sion. David spelled out the options. We could stay at the campement , 
which he was understandably not keen on straining the budget for, 
or we could rest in Roumsiki for a while, then leave and go on to an- 
other village. It was still only noon, and there was plenty of time to 
reach the next village, Mogode, though David didn’t remember any- 
thing about it. 

Or, we could go with Anatole to his authentic village. David 
turned to him and asked if we could possibly ride our bicycles there, 
and Anatole screwed up his ugly features for a moment, then replied 
“Oui, c’est possible . " I felt sympathy for this unfortunate boy, and 
had to admire his attempt to earn a little money in a highly competi- 
tive field. In this pursuit he was handicapped, not so much by the 
crippled arm, which could arouse pathos in others as it did in me, 
but it would be his appearance, speech, and manner which would 
put people off, and these I suppose were the invisible effects of his 
deformity. I suggested that perhaps we could go to Anatole’s village, 
stay if it seemed good, and if not, we would still have time to move 
on to Mogode. After a little more discussion, this plan was agreed 
on, and when Anatole disappeared to find a bicycle for himself, the 
rest of the boys divined that we had cast our lot with him, and with- 
out a word they were gone. 

Anatole led us out of town on a rattling, decrepit old bicycle, a 
rusty and battered Chinese one-speed which he guided with his good 
right hand, while he held the other before him as if in a sling. His 
brakes, I could see, were nearly useless, and when the bike shud- 
dered over more violent bumps, his chain went bouncing right off 
the chainring, forcing him to stop repeatedly to wrap it back around. 


218 



Neil Peart 


On the rougher stretches of road he sometimes leaned his body for- 
ward to rest the stump on the handlebars and help stabilize the bi- 
cycle. 

We stopped at a lookout point just outside Roumsiki, where the 
view suddenly opened far and wide to a series of barren light-brown 
hills, with the enormous gray spear of Kapsiki towering in the 
middle, and the jagged teeth of other inselbergs on the horizon. 
While we admired and photographed the view, Anatole was still try- 
ing to fix his faithless bicycle, and with a sigh David pulled out his 
toolkit and adjusted the rear wheel to take out the slack in the 
chain. As he worked, he turned to me, “Man, once you get started at 
this, sometimes it never ends. I’ve spent hours in African villages, 
tightening and adjusting a hundred of these old wrecks.” And sure 
enough, just as he tightened the wheel-nuts, another cyclist came 
riding up, an old farmer pedaling an equally battered bike, and with 
the aid of sign language and Anatole’s translations into French, the 
old man made it clear that he tod needed mechanical attention. A 
few turns of a wrench and a little air in the tires sent him on his 
way, and he smiled and rode off toward the village. 

Then it was off the road for us, as we followed the unsteady 
Anatole onto a path which led east, across a level plain. At least the 
surface was no worse than the main road had been — the same haz- 
ards of minefield, washboard, and sandtrap. Anatole struggled 
against the dry streambeds, pitching down into the loose stones with 
no brakes, then having to climb up the other side, with only one 
gear, and only one hand. Whatever he expected to make out of this, 
he was certainly earning it. 

Anatole led us along the narrow cart-track for a few miles, over 
a grassy landscape dominated by the bleak monolith of an inselberg 
to our left, and low hills ahead and to the right. Anatole wanted us 
to visit an authentic farm before we went to the authentic village, 
and led us down a footpath toward three figures. They stood waving 
and smiling beside a muddy stream: a shy young boy of ten dressed 
in a coarse tunic, his father, a powerfully-built man in his forties 
wearing worn-out trousers and shirt, and the grandfather, a spare 
and silent old man in a loose robe and small cap. Only the father 
seemed to speak French, but all three welcomed us with smiles as 
we laid our bikes on the ground and followed them around their 
little garden. Amid the surrounding arid land, a stand of small trees 
was a cool oasis along the stream, shading the mixed crops which 


219 



The Masked Rider 


the family tended. I asked the farmer if the stream continued to run 
year-round. “Oui” he nodded, but then, with a sad shake of his 
head, he told me that one year the water had failed. 

As we walked back toward their huts, the father began to speak 
of "something special” he had for us, though the name he gave it 
was unknown to both David and me. When we arrived in their 
swept dooryard, he sent the small boy into one of the huts, and the 
boy emerged carrying an enormous watermelon. Leonard laughed 
out loud, giving us an old-time caricature, “Well lookee here! A wat- 
uh-mell-un!” 

Anatole told us what a rare luxury it was to the local people, and 
how much they would pay for one in a village market. But David 
shook his head, answering that we couldn’t carry it with us. Then 
Leonard spoke up, laughing, “Tfell him we’ll take it. I’ll carry it 
somehow,” so David negotiated the purchase for something below 
the stated “market price.” 

Anatole ducked into the hut for a moment, then emerged hastily, 
bumping his head hard on the low doorway. His usual scowl further 
twisted by pain, he walked toward us rubbing the top of his head. 
David called him over so he could take a look at the wound. Seeing a 
bleeding gash in his mat of wooly hair, David told him he should put 
something on it, but Anatole only shrugged. Leonard took over as 
chief medic, and the farmer and his family watched curiously as he 
washed Anatole’s head from his water bottle, then with disinfectant, 
and finally spread some antibiotic cream on the wound. 

While Doctor Leonard performed his ministrations, the farmer 
turned to me, cocking his head in the late afternoon sun and show- 
ing his strong teeth in a smile. In halting French he said, Perhaps 
you have some medicine for me? Something to give me more energy 
for my work in the fields? 

No, I replied, there’s no medicine like that. Only youth. 
“Settlement la jeunesse” 

Ah, he said, yes. But I am no longer young. 

“Oui” I spread my hands, “c’est la mode de la vie ” That’s the 
way of life. 

He nodded thoughtfully, disappointed, as we remounted our bi- 
cycles and made our goodbyes. Anatole assured us that the village 
was not far away now, pointing to the dark hills in the east, but by 
the time we’d struggled along for another hour I began to wonder 
what he meant by “not far.” Nine kilometers seemed a modest esti- 


220 



Neil Peart 


mate of the distance, and when we paused for a rest I looked over at 
Anatole, giving him my best wry look. “Neuf kilometres?” 

“ Oui , c’est neuf kilometres ” He glared back at me with a defiant 
frown, the ever-present chip on his shoulder swelling, and asked me 
how far I thought it was. But I only shook my head. 'Smartass/ I 
thought to myself, my feelings torn between sympathy for the ap- 
parent cause of his defensiveness, and dislike for its effects. 

Leonard was slowed by carrying that watermelon, and it was a 
while before he arrived, battered and exhausted, with his arms and 
shoulders aching. He hefted the watermelon, shook his head and an- 
nounced, 'Tm about ready to toss this thing.” Two little boys had 
been following us for a while on a nearby ridge, and Anatole waved 
them closer, then gestured for Leonard to hand over the water- 
melon. Without a word, one of the boys hoisted it to his shoulder, 
and once again we set out for Anatole’s retreat. 

He told us the village was called Guave, though there was no 
sign, and the scattered group of walled and thatched compounds ap- 
peared on no map. Guave lay cupped in a narrow valley, falling into 
shadow in the westering sun. The houses blended right into the 
landscape, because they were of the landscape — stones and 
branches and grass. We were miles from the nearest electricity, or 
glass window, or automobile. And, I thought as I coasted down a 
steep tumble of rocks, miles from the nearest doctor. 

The only modern convenience in Guave was a well, a source of 
clean water which was welcome to us, and critical to the village. Be- 
fore CARE installed that well, the women and children would have 
had to walk several miles to the muddy stream by the farm we had 
visited. And I remembered what the farmer had said. One year the 
stream failed, maybe other years too. As we filled our water bottles, 
it occurred to me that all the times I had donated to these charities, 
sometimes specifically for wells in Africa, it had never meant so 
much as now, when my life depended upon it. I mentioned this to 
David, who replied, "Yes, I guess it’s the most important thing 
people can do here — provide clean drinking water. But, the other 
side of that, one of the reasons Africa’s population is growing so fast 
is not just because so many children are born, but because now so 
many survive .” 

Anatole led us to our "hotel,” a family compound beneath a great 
round tree. The oval wall surrounding the compound was built of 
stones, sometimes cemented with mud, and enclosed eight circular 


221 



The Masked Rider 


huts with thatched cone-heads. Over the entranceway a shelter of 
woven grass was supported by forked sticks, and beneath it a sin- 
ewy, long-limbed old woman, wearing only a loincloth, tended a fire. 
She nodded shyly in welcome. Behind us the children began to close 
in from the neighboring compounds. Anatole went inside to an- 
nounce our arrival, while Leonard paid off the watermelon porters. 

The voice of an irate, screeching woman came over the wall, 
pouring outrage and abuse onto Anatole. It wasn't difficult for us to 
supply the subtitles, and we looked at each other and smiled. This 
would be the mistress of the farm, who had been committed by 
Anatole to be our hostess for the night, and to cook our dinner — 
the legendary chicken in peanut sauce. While the tirade continued, 
an old man emerged with a cutlass, smiled wide for us, then turned 
around the side wall. The squawking of a terrified chicken suddenly 
added to the screeching of the angry woman. The screeching contin- 
ued, but the squawking suddenly ceased, and Leonard laughed 
darkly “There’s dinner!” 

David laid out some peanuts and guavas on the woven mat by 
the door, and we sat down to rest and await the end of hostilities. 
Now that I was able to take notice, I felt the burning of my feet, 
took off my shoes and peeled the dust-brown socks, now lightly 
blood-stained, away from the raw skin. Flies immediately began to 
cluster on the suppurating wounds. I washed my feet with a damp 
bandana, spread a little antibiotic cream on the angry flesh, and put 
on clean socks. 

The one-sided conversation behind the wall finally subsided, and 
Anatole appeared in the courtyard once again, stooped but unbowed 
— this episode hardly even added to the weight of his burdens. He 
uttered his signature “Bon,” which began nearly every statement he 
made, like an American starting every sentence with “Okay.” He 
pronounced it as a short bubble, then a long “o” sound with a nasal 
resonance on the end. Leonard had picked up on this already, and 
whenever Anatole wasn’t around, all of us were beginning our sen- 
tences with “Bon” 

“Bon,” said Anatole, and announced that it was time for our tour 
of the village. He started through the fallen maize stalks and the 
five of us fell in behind him, a long line of little boys in our wake. 
The valley of Guave lay like a shallow bowl of green in the sea of 
treeless hills beyond, its floor carpeted with guava trees, mangos, 
and the strange baobabs. Their eight-foot-thick trunks joined deep 


222 



Neil Peart 


roots which allowed them to survive long periods of drought. Anatole 
told us that the baobab fruits were used as baby formula by the local 
women if their breast milk failed, and pointed out another tree from 
which they made an insect repellent, and another which produced 
the poison for their arrows. 

Poison for their arrows ? I translated mentally, and asked 
Anatole what they used the poison arrows for. 

Hunting, he told me. 

What can they hunt for around here? I haven’t seen any wildlife. 

He waved his hand toward the east, vaguely describing an area 
about ten kilometers away where there were wild animals. A little 
apprehension replaced my curiosity, but I withheld my questions 
about what sort of predatory beasts were likely to come hunting 
around there, and if the Guavians ever used their poison arrows on 
people . 

Two more boys came running up, neater looking and better 
dressed than the village boys, and held out a much-handled old 
newsletter from the International Bicycle Fund. They told Anatole 
they’d met the writer two years ago, and had heard in the village 
he’d been asking about them. David stepped up, and the boys intro- 
duced themselves politely as Patrick and Christophe-Colombe. The 
latter seemed a strange name for a young African boy, but he was 
the spokesman for the duo. Speaking formal French, his handsome 
features frowned in concentration on what was evidently a well- 
trained second language. No doubt he too was one of the Artful 
Dodgers. 

Ifension suddenly invaded the reunion, as a bitter conversation 
arose between Anatole and the newcomers. An argument grew into a 
rapid-fire exchange of excited French, too much for David or me to 
keep up with, but it apparently stemmed from competition. Every 
young male in Roumsiki was a potential guide, and Anatole viewed 
Patrick and Christophe-Colombe as interlopers. An operatic trio of 
Anatole’s guttural imprecations and the boys’ mezzo-soprano de- 
fences was finally interrupted by Anatole turning to us, spreading 
his good arm wide in despair. “Je suis votre guide,” pointing to his 
chest, “Moi!” 

Yes, said David, you are our guide, but Patrick and Christophe- 
Colombe are my friends, and they can stay with us if they want. 
Anatole turned his back in disgust, trudged onward, and the proces- 
sion fell in behind once again. We marched along the stony path, 


223 



The Masked Rider 


David talking with Patrick and Christophe-Colombe about their 
studies, but before long the line suddenly halted as yet another ar- 
gument broke out among the three. David and I waved our hands in 
the air impatiently, demanding to know what was wrong now. 

They must go, said Anatole. 

What do you mean, they must go? They can stay if they want to, 
they are friends. Just stop all this right now. 

No, they must go. They live in the village and have to walk all 
the way back before it is dark, so if you have anything to give them 
you must do it now. 

David sighed, then accompanied Patrick and Christophe- 
Colombe back to the compound so he could give them a few small 
presents. The rest of us trooped up a stair-like terrace of rock, and 
entered the courtyard of another homestead. Mud and stone walls 
enclosed a tight cluster of huts, and goats and chickens scratched in 
the dry earth. Anatole explained that this was the home of the local 
sorcier — wizard — as well as doctor, blacksmith, leather worker, 
and part-time farmer, but the sorcier was out working in the fields 
just then. Yet another loin-clothed old woman came out to meet us, 
and for once, she was even nice to Anatole. 

With a “Bon” Anatole led us into one of the round huts, and 
showed us the forge raised on the middle of the floor. The walls were 
hung with evidence of all the wizard’s trades: odd bits of metal, 
small carvings, mysterious bundles of fur and feathers, mortars full 
of powders and herbs, clay urns for water and millet beer, and 
goatskins hung to cure from the roof poles. 

From the wizard’s den we climbed along the hillside, and an old 
man watched us and our procession of boys from over the wall of his 
compound. Then he suddenly darted out, muttering to everyone and 
no one, and all the while smiling vacantly. I didn’t quite catch 
Anatole’s explanation — this was either a crazy man or the chief of 
the village. Maybe both. Thin and agile, with a trimmed white 
beard, a white cap, and a short gray robe, he strode up and down 
the path beside us, waving his stick and babbling at the boys. He 
paid no particular attention to us, so I stole a photograph of him. It 
had been so difficult to take pictures of the people that each one 
seemed a valuable treasure. 

Each of Guave’s eight or ten homesteads included a wide shelter 
covered by mats of woven grass, the riches of the harvest spread 
upon them: baskets full of different-colored grains, peanuts, or 


224 



Neil Peart 


maize, and always two or three large cylinder-shaped stacks of mil- 
let, about five feet in diameter, which were protected by conical 
“hats.” These were artfully woven and braided straw sombreros, but 
sized for a giant, an exaggerated echo of the abominations which 
tourists returning from Mexico feel compelled to wear as they line 
up in the Arrivals hall of the airport, when you're tired and hung- 
over and just want to get out of there. I don't know why I thought of 
that, but that’s what they reminded me of. 

As I pointed my camera at one of these colorful harvest spreads, 
catching the Mexican-tourist sombreros in the last rays of sun, an 
old woman came out and began haranguing poor Anatole. The only 
word I caught was allumettes, and Anatole explained that she 
wanted some matches because I’d taken a photo of her house. David 
told her we had no matches, but she wasn’t giving up, and wanted 
something for this “imposition.” We just shook our heads and walked 
on, but it struck me that the fifteen or twenty dollars David would 
pay to the family we were staying with was likely close to a year’s 
income for the citizens of Guave, and everyone wanted a piece of it. 
David mentioned that he was going to be sure to pay Anatole in 
front of the family, to make sure they would know how much we 
were paying, and what their cut should be. 

Back at the family compound, we sat down to pull the thorns 
and prickers from our clothes. The crowd of boys gathered around 
and began silently picking at our socks, doing us a service that was 
welcome, and made us smile. We took turns squeezing between the 
narrow stone walls of the compound to a corner where two buckets 
of water had been brought for us. Since good water was easily avail- 
able at the CARE well, I treated myself to three bowls — the third 
one for the luxury of a shave. I was learning the trick of shaving 
without a mirror, by closing my eyes and visualizing my reflection 
in a mind’s eye mirror, then dragging the razor over my face blindly. 
The scars have mostly healed. 

Just at sunset the air filled with hundreds of kites, circling high 
on the last thermals. Like leaves before the wind, they came spiral- 
ing down to disappear into the trees around us, filling them with the 
invisible flapping of wings. An occasional squawk of argument sent 
one bird wheeling out in a tight circle, then back into the leaves to 
seek another roosting place. By the time we had washed and gath- 
ered once again on the straw mat, the birds were at rest and dark- 


225 



The Masked Rider 


ness had fallen. Anatole, with a final “Bon,” had disappeared to visit 
an uncle who lived nearby. 

The family sat in a circle around the fire, beneath the shelter be- 
side us. They ate quietly, ignoring us, as red shadows flickered 
across their faces. The wrinkled grandparents, the tired-looking 
husband and wife, and three small children made a living diorama, 
a timeless vignette of family life as it had passed down for thou- 
sands of years. The outside world cast barely a ripple here, the gen- 
erations succeeding each other around the glow of an open fire. Fa- 
ther and son, mother and child, days without number, world without 
end, the firelight plays on a circle of faces in the African night. 

The mistress of the house, her anger at Anatole reduced to a cool 
silence, spread our dinner on the mat outside, and we played our 
flashlight beams over the steaming bowls. The much-vaunted 
chicken in peanut sauce lived up to its reputation, and was served 
with cous-cous, which we dipped in a spinach-like sauce, and a des- 
sert of mashed sweet potato. With a great deal of sign language, 
David managed to borrow a big knife, and Leonard cut into his wa- 
termelon with ceremony, as if it were his birthday cake, and passed 
slices around to each of us. Though the inside was green rather than 
red, it tasted exactly like the watermelon we knew, and this humble 
treat was much appreciated. A hint of luxury. 

Leonard shared the rest of it with our hosts, and they too appre- 
ciated luxury, accepting it gratefully. As far as we could tell anyway; 
we didn’t understand a word they said. But it sounded like grati- 
tude. 

Finally, as the coup de grace , the patriarch brought out a half- 
round gourd — a calabash — full of millet beer, the local intoxicant I 
had been eager to try. Leonard presided over this ceremony as well, 
and I held out my folding plastic cup for him to fill. Elsa and Annie 
took a small taste, while David abstained. He’d tried it before. 

The millet beer was a thin, whitish liquid, with a taste that was 
at once both weak and bitter. Though I’d had visions of getting my- 
self good and drunk one of these nights — “sit down and get fucked- 
up,” as Leonard had put it so eloquently in Bamenda — I found that 
my enthusiasm for millet beer didn’t lead beyond one cupful. 

'God,’ I thought, Tm lost. I don’t even like booze anymore.’ 

Shaking my head despondently, I spread my sleeping bag on the 
sandy terrace and lay back under the stars. After last-minute trips 
to the bikes, and the bushes, everyone else claimed their spots on 


226 



Neil Peart 


the ground beside me, ready for bed. I looked at my watch and 
laughed. It was a little after 7:00. 

With no cities for hundreds of miles, the night was utterly black 
except for the perfect stars. A few meteors streaked across, to a cho- 
rus of“oohs” from the stargazers. Leonard, stretched out on his back 
beside me, spoke up: "Look at that — a satellite!” 

“Where? Where?” I asked, excited and curious, never having 
seen one before, and afraid it would be gone before I spotted it. I fol- 
lowed the silhouette of his arm against the stars and found the 
swift-moving dot of light, traversing the sky from north to south 
with amazing speed, on what Leonard told me was a “polar orbit.” 
Just before the satellite disappeared to the south, another appeared 
in the reverse direction, and quickly crossed the sheet of stars to the 
northern horizon. 

I don’t know by what astronomical calculations, but Leonard fig- 
ured that at least one of the satellites should be visible again about 
an hour and a half later, appearing in a different part of the sky as 
the earth rotated. I struggled to stay awake for it, but it was no 
good. After all, in another hour and a half it would have been nearly 
9:00 , a ridiculous hour to be awake. 

As my breathing deepened, I felt the air light in my nostrils and 
lungs, and thought about the winds blowing clean off the Atlantic 
for part of the year, then sweeping down over the Sahara during the 
dry season. 'Yep/ I thought, as my eyelids drew together, 'yon prob- 
ably don’t get air much cleaner than this.’ 

My eyes opened again once or twice during the night, waking 
from a flow of dreams to shift position on the gravel. One time the 
moon was just clearing the ridge behind my head, a white hemi- 
sphere suspended among the stars. A few hours later I looked up 
again and the half-moon shone straight above me, bathing the val- 
ley in silver light. 

When I awoke for the final time the moon was gone, and I lay 
still in the pre-dawn silence watching the stars go pale. A sleeper 
stirred beside me, a rustling of material, and the characteristic 
coughs and sniffs told me David was awake. I looked over at him 
and caught his eye, offering a weak smile, but we remained silent, 
watching the light slowly change with dawn. 


227 




The inselberg Kapsiki. 
Northern Cameroon. 


228 




toil an* troufcls 


So I woke up on the ground, ate a stale crust of bread, a few rai- 
sins and peanuts, and a wedge of process cheese. Flies circled my 
face while I ate, and followed me as I rolled up my sleeping bag and 
loaded the bike, ready to move again. One of the villagers sat on the 
stone wall and watched me patiently, a thin, rangy man in his mid- 
thirties. He rocked a silent little girl on his lap, and her stunted 
right arm curled in front of her, like Anatole’s, ending in a knot of 
twisted fingers. I felt a twinge of sorrow, wondering why there 
seemed to be so many mutilated people in Cameroon. Birth defects, 
accidents, fires, improperly treated wounds, diseases — but worse, 
many West African children had been crippled by sloppy inocula- 
tions, the needle striking the sciatic nerve and paralyzing the child 
instead of protecting it. 

Any kind of disability would be a terrible handicap in a country 
where existence was a hand-to-mouth struggle for nearly everyone. 
Someone like Anatole wouldn’t be able to farm, or get a job, and he 
would probably never have even one wife. Perhaps he was fortunate 
to have tourism as an option. But what would that sad-faced little 
girl grow up to? 

The father held his crippled child with obvious affection, and 
gently brushed the flies away from her eyes. He spoke in “Guavese” 
to Anatole, who translated his question into French. He wanted to 
know if I had any medicine for him. 

I am not a doctor, I answered. 

Yes, the other one (David) told him that. 

Well, what is wrong with him? Or is it for the little girl? 

As Anatole translated my question, the man set his little daugh- 
ter aside, half-stood, and pointed at his back, his stomach, and his 
head. Sore back, sore stomach, and headache. Not so serious as the 
farmer who wanted the Elixir of Youth. Or maybe this was really the 



229 



The Masked Rider 


same. I told him I had no medicine like that, that it was a matter for 
a doctor, not a bicyclist. He seemed unsatisfied, disbelieving, and I 
wondered what kind of white people he had met before, who could 
perform these wondrous cures. CARE people handing out aspirin, or 
missionaries handing out miracles? When I toured the mission hos- 
pital in Tbgo, the doctor pointed out huge jars of multivitamins they 
gave as placebos for such non-specific complaints. 

We said goodbye to Anatole and the family, the woman watching 
carefully as David paid Anatole for the lodging and food. I helped 
Elsa lift her loaded bicycle over a low stone wall, and turned away 
just at the moment when she might have said “thanks.” But she 
walked her bike down the path without a word. Annie and David 
pushed away too, while I waited for Leonard, who had just discov- 
ered a flat tire. The sidewall was pierced by a long thorn, which he 
must have picked up on the previous day’s ride down the “road” to 
Guave. That day’s first disaster was soon repaired, and we followed 
the others over the rocks and sand. The sun burned down from a 
blue-white sky, and the barren country of thorns and stunted trees 
was glorified only by the inselbergs. 

After an hour of hard labor, we turned north on the so-called 
main road — not much different from the trail to Guave, save for 
the evidence of more traffic: more ruts. I swore out loud at the worst 
stretches of road, releasing my tension, annoyance, and fear. 
Leonard laughed at my eloquence, and I called to him, “I hate fear 
in the morning!” My rear tire was slowly going flat too, but I decided 
to stop and pump it up when I had to, until a nice shady place came 
along where I could fix it. On the open road there was no shade, 
nothing to lean the bike against, and nothing to sit on. 

We stopped for beignets and soda in Mogode, a dusty street 
lined with cone-headed huts and overhung with dusty trees. Natu- 
rally a crowd of Mogodites surrounded us, some friendly, others si- 
lent and curious. I didn’t feel like changing my tire under the watch- 
ful eyes of the entire population of Mogode, so I asked Leonard to 
stop with me just outside the village. Finding a patch of shade with 
no one in sight, I stripped off the panniers and released the rear 
wheel, but while I was laying the spare tube around the rim chil- 
dren began to materialize from the fields and along the road. Soon 
ten pairs of eyes watched me work. I decided to change the tire as 
well, and sometimes a new tire is a tight fit. I pulled, pried, and le- 


230 



Neil Peart 


vered at it until anger flared up. Remembering Zen And The Art Of 
Motorcycle Maintenance, I put the wheel down and thought for a 
minute, then attacked it again. I talked to it, coaxed it, urged it, and 
cajoled it. Then I finally swore it into position. While I was cursing 
out my wheel, Leonard was watching something on the road. 

“What’s this all about?” he said, pointing at two teenage boys 
who had just met from opposite directions. One of them was hand- 
ing a paper bag to the other, who opened it and peered inside. He 
closed it quickly and placed it between his feet, reached into a 
pocket and pulled out a fold of money. Then an argument erupted, 
and suddenly they were shouting and pointing at each other, the 
first boy grabbing back the paper bag. Threats were made and fists 
were raised. 

A stocky old grandmother came trotting up and began a tirade 
of abuse and finger- wagging that cowed the boys. They stood cir- 
cling their toes in the dust and bowing their heads, as the old 
woman sent them firmly on their way, back the way they’d come. 
She stood in the road with her hands on her hips, watching them go. 
Leonard and I looked at each other, wondering what we had just 
seen. A drug deal gone bad? 

A dozen miles, a couple of hours, and many curses later, I saw 
David stopped at the roadside, and the pale figure of Elsa just disap- 
pearing along a tiny road to the left. David had been talking about 
this place he wanted to visit, a village where “the women wear cala- 
bashes on their heads.” But, he’d never been there before, knew 
nothing of the “roads,” things were bad enough already, and — 

‘And just keep your big mouth shut,’ I told myself. ‘Maybe he’s 
the only one who wants to do this, but complaining isn’t going to do 
a hit of good. After all he’s had to put up with, it’s not so bad that he 
should want to see one place he hasn’t been before. Just shut up.’ 

We followed what had become a foot-path, pedaling unsteadily 
over the usual obstacles, squeezing between walls of thorns and dry 
millet stalks, and occasionally dismounting to push through deep 
sandpits. Five miles of this took more than an hour, and it was 
nearly noon. The sun reflected straight up from the dry earth, and 
the little shade cast by the scattered trees dwindled to a small circle 
around their trunks. Hungry, tired, hot, and low on water, my mood 
was not improving. "Where the hell are we going V 


231 



The Masked Rider 


Finally David pointed to a winding path which led up the side 
of a small tree-crowned hill, and we got off and walked the heavy 
bikes to the top. This would be the village of Mabas, according to 
David, though it consisted of only two compounds, thatched peaks 
behind walls of piled stones. 

A wide patch of shade was cast by an enormous buttress-tree, a 
gnarled and twisted pair of trunks hung with cable-thick vines. The 
two dwellings were built on either side of the monumental tree, 
huddled among a scatter of great boulders. Once again, we were 
greeted by three generations: a ragged old farmer, his sinewy son, 
and a laughing boy of eight or nine years. I doubt if any tourists had 
ever found their way to Mabas before, especially on bicycles, so they 
regarded us with wonder rather than expectation. They spoke nei- 
ther French nor English, but the toothless old man finally under- 
stood that we were just passing through. With much stuttering and 
difficulty he managed to tell us “Je suis guide,” while pointing at his 
chest proudly. We laughed at the idea of needing a guide in Mabas 
(to get from one house to the other?) and the old fellow’s brow fur- 
rowed. 

But there was something to see in Mabas, as we learned when 
we followed the younger man along an indistinct trail — a trail 
whose usual purpose was indicated by the reek of human feces in 
the hot, dry air. But that was forgotten as we squeezed between the 
boulders into the open, and were stopped in our tracks by a spec- 
tacular view, spreading far below us in an endless panorama. 

“Nigeria,” said the farmer, waving his hand across it, “Nigeria.” 
All I could say was “wow!” — looking down from about two thousand 
feet over a vista of light brown plains, speckled with tiny dots of 
trees. The land receded into the haze of distance, rugged hills into 
oblivion, and a steady wind swept the cliff on which we stood. 
Strange to think we pushed our bikes up a little hill to find our- 
selves on a two-thousand-foot precipice. I scanned the valley below 
with my binoculars, picking out dry rivers, roads, and occasional col- 
lections of tiny farms. 

The smiling little boy danced around us like a goat, leaping eas- 
ily from rock to rock and chattering away in a high voice. Leonard 
called him over and handed him the binoculars, but the boy just 
stared at them. I showed him how to look through them, and he 


232 



Neil Peart 


raised the lenses slowly to his eyes. Then with a start, he pulled 
them away, his mouth open in shock. His high voice bubbled with 
amazement, and he laughed as he once more aimed the glasses 
around his “back yard,” brought close for the first time. 

We retreated from the sun back to the shade of the great tree, 
spreading ourselves on the flat boulders. David laid out our meager 
supply of food, a few guavas and peanuts left over from the previous 
day. Water was equally scarce, and I sipped carefully at my last wa- 
ter bottle while I shelled a handful of peanuts, but it wasn’t enough 
to satisfy either hunger or thirst. I spread my foam pad on the swept 
gravel, my rolled-up sleeping bag pillowed against a boulder, and I 
tried to read some Aristotle, maybe doze a little. Elsa accidentally 
kicked my foot as she walked by, but said nothing. 

Mabas seemed such an idyllic spot, and I was momentarily glad 
we came. But this paradise had its infernal pests too. The squadrons 
of hovering dragonflies were harmless, but hordes of tiny flies 
circled my face and crawled on my arms and legs. I spread the 
pagne over my body up to the neck, but the flies still tormented my 
face, so I finally had to give up, lay down the book, and pull the 
cloth over me like a shroud. 

The wind swept up from Nigeria and sounded in the trees, a 
susurrance which only seemed to emphasize the silence. I closed my 
eyes, relaxed my muscles, and felt the underlying weariness. My 
spirits and resistance were low, and a sudden pang in my stomach 
heralded an attack of misery. Hungry, thirsty, and homesick, once 
again I counted the days remaining until Paris. 

Mustering a counterattack against the misery, I tried to think of 
nice things. Having none at hand, I made some up, beginning mod- 
estly enough: ‘All the water I can drink. Some rice with junk on it. 
Yeah, and a hot shower. Clean clothes, clean body, comfortable bed. 
Cold drinks — a milk shake. Wine, champagne — a Scotch on the 
rocks! A swimming pool. Twenty-four-hour room service!’ 

As my fantasies became more remote, another pang swept 
through my mind and body, an overwhelming wave of want, a deep 
longing of vague desire. And I recognized the symptoms: ‘A fever of 
desire,’ I called it. But it was really Luxury Fever. 

Tbo restless to sleep, yet prevented by the flies from reading to 
distract myself from these futile thoughts, I lay there looking up at 


233 



The Masked Rider 


the light through the weave of the cloth. Forgotten were the aspects 
of western life I didn't miss — the telephone, the counted minutes 
— and I thought only of the things I once took for granted, the small 
pleasures. Wander into the kitchen to make a sandwich, or munch a 
couple of cookies. Grab an apple juice from the fridge on the way by. 
A reading light behind the bed. 

Yeah, home — No checkpoints, no drunken soldiers, no 'White 
Man!” No flies. 

I threw back the pagne, rose stiffly to my feet and started to 
repack my things. David opened his eyes and looked up, and I told 
him: “I’m going to get moving. I’m too hungry and thirsty to relax.” 
Then I smiled, pointing at the heap of peanut shells. "The ground- 
nuts just didn’t fill me up.” 

Well I’m sorry, but that’s what we have,” he replied, a bit de- 
fensively. 

My voice softened, to let him understand I didn’t blame him. "I 
know that, but maybe we’ll come to a village where we can buy wa- 
ter or food.” Water and food seemed to be the magic words for every- 
one, as suddenly the rest of the group was rising from beneath their 
shrouds to gather their belongings and trudge toward the bikes. I 
took out the map and double-checked our route with David, then set 
out ahead on my own. I carried a vision of a Cameroon Shangri-la: a 
kiosk which sold drinks and some kind of food. 

The road snaked and laddered over the desolate terrain, and I 
felt myself fading, flagging near the top of the steep climbs, then 
tumbling down the other side like a skier bouncing from one mogul 
to the next. Rather than riding down the hills, I felt as if I were fall- 
ing down them, and just trying to hang on. It was no good, sloppy 
and dangerous, and I tried to concentrate and truly control the bike. 

Between bumps and curses I recorded an entry: 

I'm feeling kind of low, and right now very 
thirsty. I’ve hardly had anything to eat — a small 
crust of bread this morning and two wedges of pro- 
cess cheese, and then three small beignets in a 
town, and some peanuts at siesta time. Now that it’s 
probably around three o’clock, I’m really feeling the 
hunger, and I’m almost out of water. 


234 



Neil Peart 


One swallow of water remained in my bottle, but no matter how 
thirsty I was I couldn’t drink it. It was like a precious reserve, a 
margin of survival, and a psychological buffer too. If I drank it, I 
would be out of water. 

Finally I reached Tburou, our destination, and stopped to ask a 
boy where I could find something to drink. He didn’t understand me 
in English or French, but he did understand “Coca-Cola?” and 
guided me off the road and along a rough path, trotting beside me. 
The market was empty, but the boy pointed to a square earthen 
building to one side and said “Coca-Cola.” I nodded and gave him a 
weak smile of thanks. Leaning my bike against a wall, I pushed 
back the curtain over the door and took a step inside. Six male faces 
looked up at me in surprise, staring curiously, then recovered them- 
selves and bid me welcome with smiles and indecipherable but un- 
mistakable greetings. 

Afire glowed in a small room to the side, where a man sweated 
over a pot of steaming oil, making beignets. He looked up when the 
other men called him over, and I repeated the magic word, “Coca- 
Cola?” The beignet-msker pointed to a pan on the floor, where sev- 
eral soft drink bottles lay “cooling” in water. I opened a Coke and 
drank it down. Then an Orange Crush. Then a ginger ale. The men 
sat smiling and shaking their heads at me. Small loaves of bread 
were stacked on the table, and I bought two of them as well, devour- 
ing the first like a starving man, pushing it into my mouth with 
both hands. Then I moved outside to work on the second, with a 
fourth bottle of soda. 

Leonard arrived, directed by the same young guide, and parked 
his bike beside mine. He ducked through the curtained doorway and 
started on his first soda, as Annie rode up too, even her perpetual 
smile looking worn. When David and Elsa finally arrived, poor Elsa 
was too tired even to be grumpy. She laughed wearily at the mad- 
ness of it all, and took rare pleasure in a bottle of ginger ale. The 
usual crowd of ragged boys gathered around our bicycles, and the 
usual crowd of flies gathered around our faces. 

A short time later we were spreading our beds under a shelter 
of woven mats behind a beer-hall. Fortunately, the bar was closed, 
perhaps it only opened on weekends or market day, a more likely oc- 
casion in Tburou. (When the women wore calabashes on their 


235 



The Masked Rider 


heads.) Two boys were sent to the well with two clay urns in a 
wheelbarrow, and we impatiently awaited their return. Water! De- 
hydration had afflicted us all, and we drank the water as fast as it 
could be filtered, David, Leonard, and I working full-time with the 
two pumps. Thirst had become a bone-deep craving, and I couldn’t 
drink enough. 

Or eat enough. As darkness fell, we sat on the ground in the 
glow of a kerosene lantern and loaded our bowls with fish stew and 
boiled yams. The day’s hardships seemed to have softened everyone, 
and the mood was light and friendly. Water and simple food — there 
seemed nothing to complain about now. When the food was gone, 
washed down by another liter of water, I was bloated with a surfeit 
of both, and happy just to move over to my corner of the shelter and 
lay down. 

But after drinking all that water, several times during the night 
I was obliged to get up and go out back to the “latrine” — my choice 
of bushes — and water the garden while I looked up at the stars. 


I mentioned that English saying about the only good thing in 
Scotland being the road leading out of it. You could not say that 
about Kumba, or Tourou either. At first light we returned to the 
marketplace, hoping to find some breakfast, and to fulfill the grail of 
this quest: see the women with calabashes on their heads. But the 
market was deserted; the only attraction was a group of men leading 
a complaining bull through the market to a fenced-in corner, the 
slaughterhouse. Leonard snickered when I cupped my hands and 
called out to the bull “Run away! Run away! You’re going to be 
killed'!' 

At the earthen hut where we had set new records in soda-pop 
consumption the previous afternoon, David convinced the busy 
beignet - maker to fry us up some omelettes. We sat at the little table 
and discussed whether to wait for the calabash-heads to show up. 
The market didn’t get under way until eight o’clock, and it was only 
a little after six. Elsa decided to leave right after breakfast, while 
David wanted to wait and see the object of his quest. The rest of us 
thought we’d wait a little while, and see how we felt. 


236 



Neil Peart 


Well, how we felt was hot, restless, tormented by flies, and 
stared at by the gathering crowds. At least I did. When you go some- 
where to look at the people because they’re unusual, and find them 
staring at you because you're unusual, it’s just too much. 

But wait. “Over there — isn’t that a woman with — something 
on her head?” And yes, it was a short, stocky woman wearing an in- 
verted salad bowl, a polished gourd set firmly over her hair like a bi- 
cycle helmet. After all we’d been through to get there, and whatever 
we had to get through to get out, it seemed a little anticlimactic. 
'Well, okay,” I said, “we’ve seen one now. I’m going to get going,” and 
I took off after Elsa. David looked away, perhaps a little miffed at 
our lack of cultural enthusiasm. 

A milestone at the crossroads arrowed right for Koza, the town 
where we would rejoin the main road. The sign read “30 KMS,” and 
I headed that way, but at the last house in the village, the road 
ended. With a muttered “damn," I turned around and pedaled back, 
scanning the roadside, but there was no other road. I activated my 
high-tech direction-finder — stopping a man and saying “Koza? 
Koza?” while I pointed my finger rapidly up the road. He gave me a 
gap-toothed smile and nodded. Scattered groups of people came up 
the road on their way to market, leading goats, carrying chickens, 
baskets of produce, or great bags of grain, and many of the women 
wore the famous calabashes on their heads. All those people must be 
coming from somewhere. 

Back I went. Where the road ended a group of children stared 
at me as if at a monster from Mars. I tried my direction-finder on 
them, but they were too stunned; their heads only trembled in fear 
and disbelief. A footpath led down into the rocks and bushes to one 
side, and a pair of men emerged from it. I gave them the “Koza?”- 
and-repeated-pointing routine, and one of them smiled and nodded. 
Could it be? 

'Maybe the path joins up with a road,’ I thought, and started 
down it, steering around the larger stones. Soon the path was noth- 
ing but larger stones, and I had to get off and wrestle the bike down 
over the scree. And there came Elsa, pushing her bike up the scree. 

“There’s nothing here but a footpath. It must be the wrong 
way,” she said. 

“Well, I’ve asked everyone I’ve seen, and they all say it’s the 
road to Koza.” 


237 



The Masked Rider 


Unsure what to do, we stood beside the path, moving our bikes 
aside to let more marketers and calabash-heads pass. I spotted a 
man in green work-clothes and hailed him. “Bonjour” and he an- 
swered me in French. I asked about the road, and he told me that it 
was indeed the only road to Koza, but, he shook his head, it is not in 
good repair. The road is not ... finished. 

Ah yes. “Merci, m’sieur” I smiled. We are used to roads like 

that. 

I translated this information for Elsa, and like me she was not 
daunted by a road that was “not finished.” We’d seen a few, and sur- 
vived them. And he called it a chemin, road, and not a piste, path. 
An important semantic distinction, however inaccurate. 

The path, for path it was, ran beside a dry stream for a mile or 
so, and I was able to remount the bicycle and ride, moving ahead of 
Elsa. Then I was off the bike again, as the path led up the steep cleft 
of a hill, winding out of sight. The wheels bounced against the rocks 
and banged the sharp pedals into my shins. I swore grimly, still 
thinking 'maybe the real road is just on the other side of the hill.’ 

But on the other side of the hill was another hill, out of the 
shade and into the already-hot sun. There was no cycling now, just 
hauling the bike upward, then trying to hold it back going downhill. 
My right shoe had split across the sole, and I 'felt every sharp rock I 
stepped on. The smaller stones found their way inside. A little 'uh- 
oh’ went off in my head; things were not looking good. I hoped it 
wasn’t going to be like that for thirty kilometers. 'Please, not eigh- 
teen miles of this' 

Thump, bump — pant pant — bang, crash — ouch! Shit. 

No more people walked on this “road to Koza,” and no more 
little farms appeared out of the bush. Sweat trickled down my face, 
and blood trickled down my shin where the pedal had scraped it 
raw. I worked my way around the shoulder of a hill, then looked 
back to see someone behind me, a dark-skinned figure in a red 
tanktop. It was Leonard, and he was actually riding his bike, head 
down as he picked his way along the path. I leaned my bike against 
one of the many conveniently-located boulders, took a drink of water 
and waited as he caught up. 

I shook my head at him. “Man, I can’t believe you’re riding on 
this.” 


238 



Neil Peart 


“Me either. It’s pretty crazy. I think I’ll push for a while,” and he 
laid his bike down and dragged a bandana over his face. 

“I’m glad to see you anyway,” I said, “I was beginning to think 
everyone must have turned around, and would be back in Tburou 
laughing at me.” 

“No, the others are behind. I just helped Elsa get her bike up 
one of the hills, and she wasn’t laughing.” He rubbed his bearded 
cheek. “I haven’t really been laughing either.” 

“Me either. This is awful. I can’t believe David got us into this, 
without even asking someone about the road, or if there was a 
road.” 

Leonard was looking away, and he turned to me with visible 
alarm. “Oh-oh.” 

“What? What’s the matter?” 

“Up there, behind those boulders on the hill. You see them?” 

My eyes followed his arm to a ridge ahead of us, and I saw a few 
dark figures — furry figures — perched on the rocks. “Looks like ba- 
boons,” I said. 

“Yeah! A lot of ’em too.” 

“I don’t think they’ll bother us.” 

But Leonard was doubtful: “I don’t know.” 

“No really. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of baboons attacking 
people, unless they were cornered, or you messed with their babies 
or something.” I took hold of my handlebars and started to push the 
bike again, but I could sense that Leonard was still shaken. Now 
he’d made me a little nervous too; maybe there was something about 
baboons I hadn’t heard. 

I kept a wary eye on the rock-strewn heights to either side, and 
saw a dozen or so baboons popping up behind the boulders at ran- 
dom, like shooting-gallery targets. 'Massing an attack,’ I thought 
drily. A solitary woman passed in the other direction, averting her 
calabash-shaded eyes from me, but she didn’t seem to be alarmed by 
the simian hordes. Then the trail worsened, and claimed my full at- 
tention, so I forgot about the baboons. 

Now I knew what the man in Tburou had meant when he said 
the road was “not finished” — it was literally not finished. Someone 
had once tried to make a road there, a long time ago. The shoulder 
of the hill had been shored up with rock for miles, to make a road- 


235 



The Masked Rider 


bed of football-sized stones (just the right size for every one of them 
to catch my wheels and pitch the bike sideways into my leg). The 
road would have been wide enough for vehicles, and was laid out on 
the steep hills in switchbacks, but the stones were overgrown with 
weeds and bushes beside a narrow footpath. The “road to Koza” in- 
deed. 

At the bottom of a particularly nasty descent, still high above 
the valley floor, I threw my bike down in disgust, wishing I could 
just wing it over the side and walk the hell out of there. Td probably 
only covered two or three miles, and Koza was eighteen miles away. 

I remembered Leonard, and looked back for him. He wasn’t 
coming. The baboons? My voice echoed back in the dry air as I called 
his name. No reply. Leaving my bike where it lay, I walked back up 
the hill I had just so painfully descended, calling out as I went. No 
reply. I climbed a little faster, sweating and panting and swearing, 
half- worried about him, and half-sure that this was all for nothing. 
As I worked my way around the shoulder of the hill, I saw Leonard 
pedaling slowly around the previous one. We started back down, 
Leonard on his bike and trying to thread between the soccer-ball 
rocks without going over the edge to oblivion, but he soon gave it up. 
“A person could get hurt around here.” 

“Yeah, a good reason for walking. If you get hurt, I’m not going 
to carry you out.” 

“You’d just leave me here, to be eaten alive by baboons?” 

“Sure. I’ll be outside the Deux Magots in Paris, sipping a Kir 
Roy ale” 

I picked up my bicycle and we turned down the steep path, the 
bike bouncing through the stones and into me. Thump, bump — 
pant pant — bang, crash — ouch! Shit. 

“You know,” I said to Leonard, “this might be the worst experi- 
ence of my life.” 

A short laugh. “Well, I couldn’t really say that.” 

Of course not, I realized — he was in Vietnam. This can’t really 
compare to that. I shouldn’t feel so sorry for myself. But I did. 

We finally reached the bottom, and the trail led us into a valley 
of high grass and thorns. We managed to ride occasionally, but only 
for short intervals, until we met a rocky streambed or a patch of 
deep sand. The thorns bordering the narrow trail tore at my arms 
and legs, and they were the barbed kind that hook in and rip. (East 


240 



Neil Peart 


Africans call them "wait-a-bit” thorns.) Drops of blood on my arms 
added to the gore of my shins. 

Now I was mad, and looking for someone to blame. My thoughts 
were poisoned by pain and bad temper. Why hadn’t David asked 
someone about this "road,” instead of committing us to eighteen 
miles of this ? Why did he have to see the calabash-heads anyway? 
No one else cared about it. He didn’t even really ask us. Et cetera. 

The shade of a spreading tree beckoned, and we stopped to rest. 
As I leaned my bike against another conveniently-located boulder, I 
noticed that the front tire (the brand-new Michelin I’d only put on 
the day before) had been chewed up pretty badly. Chunks of tread 
had been torn right off, down to the white casing. And, it was going 
flat. 

A slow leak is difficult to find without dipping the tube in water 
and looking for air bubbles, so I decided to change it. Using the "elo- 
quence method” once again, I levered the tire off and installed a new 
tube. But as I started to pump it back up again, the tire remained 
limp. I heard the whoosh of air going in, and right back out. Strip- 
ping the tire off once more, I found a gash in my brand-new spare 
tube. 

Patch the gash, wrestle the tube back into the tire, and try 
again. Whoosh. The air goes in; the air goes out. One more time; 
take it apart, find another gash, patch it and put the whole thing to- 
gether again. And again, whoosh. Now I left the tube out while I 
tested it, patched six holes, and it still wouldn’t hold air. I gritted my 
teeth and closed my eyes for a few seconds, trying not to pick up a 
convenient rock and start pounding my bike into a twisted wreck. 

"Hey Leonard.” 

‘Wo.” 

"I think this would be a good time for you to tell me a story to 
make me feel better — about your experiences that were worse than 
this.” 

He chuckled, a little embarrassed. "Well, when I worked for the 
government, you know. When you’re out there, and people are try- 
ing to kill you just because you’re there , that’s about the worst thing 
there can be.” 

"Yup, you’re right. I can’t begin to imagine it. But I don’t really 
feel better.” 

"Me either.” 


241 



The Masked Rider 


My patch kit was empty, and I had to start on Leonard’s supply. 
I’d given up on the defective “brand-new” tube, and gone back to the 
old one, hoping I’d get lucky and find the tiny hole. I pumped it up 
and held it to my ear, listening for the inaudible, the trickle of air 
slowly escaping. I moistened a finger with saliva and spread it over 
likely-looking areas of the tube, but there were no tell-tale bubbles. I 
held the limp tube in my hands, and wondered what to do. 

Leonard had been moving around a little, perhaps he’d seen 
some water. I pointed to a watercourse beside us, just out of sight 
behind the bushes and grass. “Say, there doesn’t happen to be a little 
water in that stream, does there?” 

He gave a short embarrassed laugh. “As a matter of fact, yeah, 
there is. I never thought of it.” 

I cursed myself for an idiot, and walked over to see a stream 
running clear over the rocks and sand. Wading straight into it, the 
water cool inside my shoes, I plunged the tube under. A slow stream 
of bubbles showed the pinprick hole, and I marked it with a pen. 

Just as I stood up, with my feet still in the stream, I was sur- 
prised to hear the other three come bouncing down the trail toward 
us. I’d thought they would surely have turned back. 

David spoke with forced jollity, “Hey guys! How’s it going?” 

I remained silent as I walked back to the tree, but Leonard re- 
plied with his quiet irony, “Oh, just wonderful thank you.” 

I concentrated on putting my front wheel back together. At last 
it held air. 

Elsa was also silent, while Annie, of course, was cheerful. But 
quietly cheerful. 

“How far do you think we’ve come,” murmured Elsa, and David 
consulted his large-scale map. “About six or seven miles.” A chorus 
of sighs, eleven more to go. 

The trail continued through dry streambeds, sandtraps, and 
thorns. I tried to ride high on the sides, out of the softer earth, but 
there I was more exposed to the sharp thorns, and lost some more 
pieces of my arms and legs. I frowned, swore, and kept moving. 

Leonard and I stayed together; taking turns leading and follow- 
ing for another hour. We emerged into a wide clearing, where the 
Cameroon flag drooped over a low schoolhouse. I left Leonard in the 
shade of a tree while I wheeled up to it. A spectacled young man an- 
swered my “Alio? Bonjour!” through the door, and came outside. Be- 


242 



Neil Peart 


hind him I saw his students creep to the windows and stare at me. 
The teacher’s French was excellent, and finally, by means of the 
time-honored method of drawing in the sand, I felt sure I under- 
stood his complicated directions. 

As I returned to tell Leonard the happy news that maybe we 
weren’t lost forever, David came riding out of the bushes, sweating 
and panting. “I’ve been trying to catch you guys. This isn’t the right 
way. A lady back there told us Koza is that way.” And he pointed 
back the way we’d just come, and off to the south. “I’ve sent the girls 
ahead down a path that leads that way, then came to get you.” 

I frowned. “Well, I just got directions from the teacher in this 
school, and he says we can get to Mozogo this way, which is closer 
than Koza anyway. I think we should carry on along this path.” 

He glared at me, and I glared back. 

“Okay then,” David said, “we’ll meet in Mozogo.” 

“Okay then,” I replied. 


243 




The sorceror s passageway. 
Guave. 


244 




tbs hzards ars fat aT waza 



And now we were two. Leonard, bless him, stayed with me, and 
we continued up the track. The only thing the schoolteacher hadn’t 
told me was how far all of those landmarks were, and miles went by 
as I watched in vain for the place where we were supposed to turn. 
We threaded along the valley between rocky hills, the sun now di- 
rectly overhead, and saw only a few farms, walled clusters of cone- 
heads. 

“What if we come out in Nigeria?” said Leonard. 

“We’ll be in trouble,” I replied drily. Very drily. I was down to 
that last mouthful of water again, the one I could never drink, so I 
was tormented by a desperate thirst — as well as by hunger, misery, 
heat, and uncertainty. This was getting a bit crazy. We were not on 
the map, we were nowhere , with no food or water, and didn’t know 
where we were going. 

The footpath finally led us to a fork, just as the teacher had de- 
scribed. A concrete signpost, like the one in Tburou, marked it with 
a chiseled arrow pointing one way for Ashigashiya, which my map 
told me was in Nigeria, where we didn’t want to go, and the other 
way for Koza, where we did — sort of. 

The teacher had also said that along this track to Koza we would 
find a small path to the left, which would take us to Mozogo and 
save us a few kilometers. Somewhere over there, in the featureless 
desert of the Chad Basin, was the road we wanted, the Grande 
Route that would take us north to Mora, Waza, and eventually, into 
Chad. But once again I had no idea how far the turn might be, so I 
hesitated at every little path. On a whim I had packed a diver’s 
wrist-compass, given to me by my brother-in-law, a diving instruc- 
tor, and now I was glad of it. At least I could tell which direction the 
paths ran. I strapped it onto my right wrist, opposite the Casio 
which now said 12:00. 

As if we didn’t know where the sun was. 


245 




The Masked Rider 


Leonard still carried one full water bottle, which he split with 
me (thereby earning a guaranteed mention in my Will), but even 
measuring it out carefully, waiting until my mouth was sticking to- 
gether before I took a small sip of the solar-heated water, it was soon 
gone as well. Except, of course, for the one precious swallow in re- 
serve. 

An old farmer pushed an ancient bicycle out of his compound, 
the first human we’d seen in many miles. I did the old “direction 
finder” routine on him, pointing frantically up the track and repeat- 
ing “Mozogo?” and he nodded. His own pointing finger reached out 
and around to describe a turn to the left, just as the schoolteacher 
had said, but there was no way I could think of to ask him how far it 
was to that path. Such are the limitations of sign language. I smiled 
and thanked him in English and French, neither of which he under- 
stood, but I was grateful for his help, and for his sheer existence in 
that desolate place. 

After a few more miles, we stopped by a twisted mass of thorns 
that rose just over our heads, making a small umbrella of patterned 
shade. Leonard was looking haggard, and slumped over his bike as 
he asked, “Do you want to rest here for a while?” 

Driven by determination, uncertainty, and fear , I said, “I’d feel a 
lot better resting once we know where we are. Let’s carry on a bit 
and see if we can’t find this path.” 

He nodded, and we carried on. 

One path to the left seemed a little wider than the others, and 
was marked by wheelruts rather than the footprints of people and 
livestock — that was something. I checked with the compass, and it 
ran straight to the east, so we decided we’d try it for a while, and 
see how it “felt.” Across the plain we headed, a pair of automatons 
pedaling over hard, rippled earth and white dust, past thorns and 
one or two farms and small dry fields of maize stalks. 

A few square buildings appeared on the horizon, and then the 
track beneath my wheels became a street, leading between rows of 
earthen houses with metal roofs (that detail alone told me we were 
in a town rather than a village; villages have thatched roofs, towns 
have metal). Relieved, but too tired to be joyful, we pedaled into 
Mozogo, still not absolutely sure that it was Mozogo, but it was 
somewhere, and we’d been nowhere for nearly eight hours. Better to 
be lost in the middle of somewhere than the middle of nowhere, I al- 
ways say. Or I will, from now on. 


246 



Neil Peart 


The unpaved street — but a street! — led us to a crossroads, and 
on one corner was a small shop. Leonard and I dumped our bikes on 
the ground and started drinking. The first two bottles of Fanta were 
uncapped and swallowed whole, and then another two, tasting so 
good and wet and sweet, and everything a person could want. Feel- 
ing revived, rehydrated, and reassured by knowing my place in the 
world, I offered to do a little reconnoitering, see if I could find the 
well which the shopowner had told me about, and a place where we 
could wait for the others. That was 1 okay with Leonard, as long as he 
didn’t have to move. 

A few people turned to stare as I rode through Mozogo, but the 
town was largely deserted in the midday heat. I heard a chorus of 
voices shouting as I passed, but I ignored them at first. I’d grown 
used to being shouted at by strangers. Then I noticed that they 
seemed to be shouting my name, and thought they must have an- 
other word for “white man” that sounded like it. The voices became 
louder and more insistent, and there, amid a crowd of children, 
stood David, Elsa, and Annie, all of them, including the children, 
calling out my name. 

I coasted on for a few seconds in shock. It had been five hours 
since we’d parted at the schoolhouse, on different paths and aiming 
for different destinations, and at best I’d hoped we’d meet up again 
on the main road. And I didn’t even know where that was yet. The 
frustration of the whole day dissolved as I turned around and 
parked my bike, then entered the house where they’d been waiting 
— also gulping down bottles of soda. We sat on the ground, laughing 
at this classic Stanley/Livingstone scene. Their path had indeed led 
to Koza, as ours had led to Mozogo, and both of us had reached 
Mozogo at nearly the same time. The country had seemed so big, so 
untracked and desolate, that I had truly wondered if we would ever 
find each other again. 

As we sat in the cool dimness of the earth- walled room, David 
stated our options: we could stay in Mozogo and try to improvise 
some kind of “rustic accommodations,” or we could rest awhile and 
then go on to Mora, another thirty miles or so, where we could stay 
in a proper hotel, maybe with running water, beds, a restaurant ... 

lb my surprise, Elsa was in favor of going on, despite all she’d 
been through, and the rest of us agreed. Annie and I rode back to 
the crossroads to see what Leonard had to say, and found him 
slumped against the wall of the little shop, his legs drawn up and 


247 



The Masked Rider 


his eyes closed. When I told him that everyone else wanted to con- 
tinue on to Mora, he agreed — in a groaning sort of way. 

The others planned to rest until mid-afternoon, to recover from 
the morning and avoid the heat, but as usual I was restless and 
wanted to get somewhere, so I set out early. The Grande Route from 
Mozogo up to Mora was not very grand, not even paved, but after 
the past few days, it was nothing to complain about either. It ran 
smooth and straight over the flat, featureless terrain of the southern 
tip of the Chad Basin. I rode for Mora like an eighteen-wheeler, 
picking the smoothest track between the potholes and washboard 
and not slowing my pace for anything. 






Westerners who have been long-time residents in West Africa 
use “WAWA,” an acronym for “West Africa Wins Again,” to express 
the occasional frustrations of life there. WAWA, with its appropriate 
sound of wailing despair, is commonly applied by those who are de- 
feated in their efforts to get something done, approved, fixed, built, 
moved, bought, or sold with western speed and efficiency. 

However, such people view themselves as going against West 
Africa, in a battle of wills, while the nature of our journey was to go 
with West Africa, not to try to make it “just like home.” We didn’t ex- 
pect western speed and efficiency, or even plumbing and electricity. 
We didn’t expect much at all, and if you don’t expect much, you 
won’t be disappointed. But still, sometimes the place got the better 
of us. 

Two hours later I wheeled into the dusty streets of Mora and up 
to the hotel David had described to me. Le Campement de Wandela 
was a compound of circular, thatched cabins in a gravel yard, with a 
few palms and flowering shrubs surrounding the main building, a 
restaurant. In the late afternoon light I parked my bicycle by the 
terrace and walked inside, past the empty tables and the “foosball” 
table, and up to the bar. A woman sat behind it, and looked up at 
me, expressionless and apparently undisturbed by my dirty, sweaty 
and disheveled condition. I quickly arranged for our two rooms, and 
asked her if there was any water. 

“Oui,” she replied, “il y en a,” and I smiled at the vision of get- 
ting clean, then sitting down to wait for the others on the terrace 


248 



Neil Peart 


with a nice whiskey — a large whiskey. Maybe two. The sober-faced 
woman led me to a circular hut, and I looked inside. Two beds, a 
wardrobe, and a bathroom , with a toilet, sink and shower. Yes! As I 
unloaded my panniers and hauled them inside, the woman spoke 
again, then turned away. I didn’t quite catch it — it sounded as if 
she said she was going to get some water. 

Thinking I must have misunderstood her, I called her back. 
“Excusez, mais je ne comprends pas” Did you say bring me some 
water? There is a bathroom here, and you told me there was water. 

Yes, there is. I will bring you a bucket of it. 

After all we’d been through to get to Mozogo — walking for 
miles over the hills out of Tburou, then struggling through the sand, 
lost and thirsty and ripped by thorns — and the only reason we had 
decided to continue on to Mora had been our certainty that we’d be 
rewarded for our efforts, that we’d find a proper hotel, one with run- 
ning water. 

But the water wasn’t running; it was walking toward me, in a 
bucket, the woman’s body curved against its weight. I sighed and 
took it from her, then opened my panniers mournfully and dug out 
my soap, cloth, and the soup bowl. West Africa had won again. 


Early the next morning we stopped at another small hotel just 
outside Mora, hoping to find some breakfast, but it was closed up 
tight. Elsa wrinkled her nose at the strong urine smell around the 
walls. The night watchman rose from his nest on the terrace and 
went to find the cook, and I leaned back against the steps and 
watched the lizards scampering across the wall, or simply hanging 
there, defying gravity. 

Our omelettes arrived, accompanied by the surprise of toast, 
jam, and butter (well, margarine). The pre-sweetened coffee was 
undrinkable, so instead I washed the meal down with a big bottle of 
warm Tbp citron. It no longer seemed strange to be drinking soda 
pop at 6:30 in the morning. 

Things were going to be better today — on a paved road! We 
hadn’t seen a paved road since the ride to Garoua, when the bus had 
broken down, and after five days of dirt and squalor, forty miles of 
smooth riding was going to be, as my Dad used to say, “a treat in- 


249 



The Masked Rider 


stead of a treatment.” My adrenalin went straight to the pedals, 
shifting up, then onto the big chainring and into top gear, I went 
racing through the flat savanna of thorns and occasional cotton 
fields. Small concrete markers appeared at the roadside every ten 
kilometers, and by timing myself between them I figured I was cov- 
ering nearly twenty miles-an-hour. 

For the first time in many days, my mind felt free. I could actu- 
ally think about things without having to concentrate exclusively on 
survival, without being totally consumed by the obstacles which 
threated my position on top of the bicycle. I replayed the conversa- 
tion from the previous night, when Elsa had asked me “So, how did 
you like today’s little adventure?” 

Not in the best of moods, I had replied, “Well, I thought it was a 
case of going nowhere, for nothing, with no road out!” 

The others had laughed a little, but David had been defensive: “I 
don’t think it was for nothing. I thought it was interesting, and the 
scenery was beautiful.” 

No one else had said anything, and I’d kept silent, content to let 
him take it personally. I’d taken it personally too — every torturous 
mile, every sweltering and thirsty hour, every stone in my shoe, ev- 
ery hole in my tire, every rock that bounced the bike into my bleed- 
ing leg, and every thorn that ripped into my skin. I couldn’t let him 
gloss over one of the worst days of my life with words like “beauti- 
ful” and “interesting.” 

But that morning I thought about it some more as I rolled hap- 
pily along, and wondered why David and I saw that Tourou expedi- 
tion so differently. I began to tiptoe around an insight: David’s mind 
worked differently , that’s all. He saw and approached life in a com- 
pletely alternate way. Wherever he was, that was the right place to 
be, because he was there. And if he wanted to go somewhere else, he 
could always get there from here. David was a radial thinker. 

And me, I guessed I was a linear thinker. If I stood at Point A 
and wanted to go to Point Z, there was only one way to get there: 
the most direct route. The other points along the road, say Point B, 
or Point M, whatever, they would only be that — points along the 
road. I might pause to appreciate them, if they weren’t too far out of 
my way, but they would never distract me from the goal: Point Z. 

For David, whatever point he was at offered infinite possibili- 
ties, infinite alternatives, and the goal of getting to Point Z was en- 


250 



Neil Peart 


tirely secondary, maybe even “beside the point.” Each of those inter- 
mediary steps was complete unto itself, and if he found himself at 
Point B, then another complete set of possibilities would appear, 
none of them less attractive than the straight line toward Point Z. 
There was no wrong way to go, as long as he was going. 

And that's where we were alike, David and I. We both wanted to 
be moving , never mind radial or linear. He had the same restless cu- 
riosity, the physical energy, the wide-ranging interests, the opinion- 
ated activism. However, we also shared a healthy sense of self-es- 
teem, so that when our wills clashed, like at the schoolhouse on the 
way from Tburou, neither of us was going to back down from our “vi- 
sion.” 

And, I realized, David’s way “worked” too. Perhaps it was even 
better in some ways. Less exigent, less single-minded, less stressful. 
He had achieved some admirable goals in cycling and in life, and I’m 
sure, like me in my linear way, he had made some of his dreams 
come true, in his radial way. 

And so, as I pushed the pedals steadily and sped down the high- 
way toward Waza, I tried to apply this geometric “mind-map” to 
other people I knew. If Space was a curve and Time a spiral, maybe 
people’s brains worked that way too. Circular Thinking: those who 
confine themselves to a narrow sphere of interest, and continually 
orbit around the same familiar territory. Where “twenty years of ex- 
perience” is really one year of experience, twenty times over. I knew 
some of them, and lots of Parallel Thinkers, those who adopt some- 
one else’s ideas and follow them blindly. And Parabolic: those whose 
ideas move in little jumps from time to time, then hibernate be- 
tween. Zigzag Thinkers, they were many, and the Zero-Thinkers too, 
those who had stopped thinking entirely around puberty. 

Static Thinkers: those who only ever had one idea, or one desire 
— say “making money,” or “having fun,” and became fixated on that 
to the exclusion of all else. Even these two examples define dia- 
metrically opposite people, but they have this in common: both are 
intolerant of any other world-view. The mercenary mind thinks ev- 
eryone else is simply “impractical,” but at its most extreme will de- 
scend into boring, ulcerated emptiness. The hedonist will accuse us 
all of “taking things too seriously,” while descending into boring, 
unfulfilled substance abuse. 


251 



The Masked Rider 


I like the idea of Concentric Thinking. I have a friend who is an 
impoverished artist, a painter, musician, writer, activist, and wor- 
shipper of the female breast. Mendelson Joe, he calls himself (be- 
cause that is how the government addresses him), a corpulent, 
bearded, stubble-headed man perpetually dressed in paint-splat- 
tered overalls, his eyes glaring with fierce clarity through black- 
rimmed glasses. He lives and works in an old shoemaker’s shop in 
an aging part of downtown Toronto, and his storefront studio is piled 
to the ceiling with a chaos of paintings, papers, and motorcycle. Ev- 
erything but the paintings is spattered with paint. His bed is dis- 
guised as a couch, and he hides his bathtub under a pile of junk in 
the basement, to conceal his unlawful use of a place-of-business as a 
residence. 

Mendelson Joe is opinionated and completely uncompromising, 
and yet remains funny and stimulating. When you emerge from his 
studio into the hard winter light you are dizzy and drained by the 
effort of keeping up with his pragmatic idealism. He is a self-taught 
everything , and has no time for my linear values of learning about 
things and practising them in order to improve — he just does it. He 
paints, he plays his guitar, he writes letters to friends and newspa- 
pers. When he creates something, a painting or a song, he looks at 
it, sees that it is good, and goes on to something else. 

For M. Joe, life isn’t a matter of motion , but of being. He exists, 
rock-like, in the center of his interests and his as-yet-unrewarded 
work, just doing what he likes to do. A “dropped pebble,” I call him, 
a Concentric Thinker, as the ripples of his art and opinions radiate 
out into the world. And he laughs at me. 


A thin overcast whitened the sky, the Harmattan winds bearing 
the dust of the Sahara. The paved road continued through parched 
yellow savanna and thorn trees, like the plains of East Africa. The 
scene lacked only the delicate statuary of the flat-topped acacias 
which give a mystical cast to the Serengeti. Hornbills, large black 
and white birds with long ivory-colored bills, flew by in their curious 
rhythm: a few wingbeats, a dip, a few more wingbeats, another dip. 
Slow-moving lizards, about ten inches long and bright lime-green 
and yellow, crossed the road in front of me. They must have been 


252 



Neil Peart 


poisonous, and therefore without fear of predators, because I had to 
steer around them as they moved with the same royal invulnerabil- 
ity displayed by the porcupines in Quebec. 

I used to wonder why I saw so many smashed porcupines on the 
roads of Quebec on my early-morning bike rides, until one day I 
witnessed the reason. With the sun just rising above the Laurentian 
pines, I wheeled around a corner and saw a porcupine (from the 
French — “pig with spines”) waddling across the road, its grizzled 
quills carried flat along its back and sides. A car approached from 
the other direction, but, fortunately, saw the animal and stopped in 
front of it. The porcupine didn’t change its pace or direction, but as 
the car turned to go around it, raised its quills and turned its back 
to the car, rotating to keep the quills pointed straight at the chrome 
bumper of the giant predator. Then, as the car drove off, the fat pin- 
cushion lowered its quills and waddled away into the woods. After 
thousands of years of perfect defence, the pig-with-spines has yet to 
learn that it is not invulnerable to two tons of speeding steel. The 
green-and-yellow lizards of Northern Cameroon had the same les- 
son to learn; the road was regularly splattered with lime-green 
roadkill. 

The land became increasingly desolate, no houses, and often the 
grass had been burned away to black devastation. The humming of 
my wheels over the pavement seemed to change its frequency, and I 
looked down to see that my front tire was bulging against the road. 
'Maybe just low on air,’ I hoped, but it soon began to feel unmistak- 
ably spongy. Another flat. My light mood immediately darkened — 
was punctured , you might say — and I pulled over to change the 
tube. The others caught up as I worked at the side of the road, and 
Leonard stayed back with me. I put the wheel back together and we 
rode another mile, then it went flat again. Bad words were spoken. 

By the time we were back on the road, the Harmattan had come 
up with the heat of the day, and we fought a fierce headwind for the 
last few miles. Finally a tall rocky hill appeared on our left, the only 
prominence on the featureless savanna. We had arrived at the 
Campement de Waza, the game park lodge. 

David grumbled a bit over the expense — fifty dollars a room — 
but it was certainly worth it. The round-topped hill was studded 
with circular white huts under thatched roofs, plumbing that 
worked, a swimming pool, a bar and restaurant on the terrace, 


253 



The Masked Rider 


lunch of vegetable soup, tomato and tuna salad, bottled water, and 
— mirabile dictu — ICE CREAM! 

My notebook put it best: “hardly to be borne!” After nearly a 
week without a shower, that alone was worth the price of admission, 
never mind being able to wash my clothes, enjoy a few lunchtime 
luxuries, swim in the cool water of the pool and lay in the sun, then 
take an afternoon nap in a soft bed. At sunset I returned to the ter- 
race for a Scotch on ice, and trained my binoculars on a pair of 
Crowned Cranes, who fed in the swampy waterhole beside the hill. 
Even through the glasses they were just slender silhouettes, but I 
could make out the fanned tiara atop their heads, the source of their 
name. I took another sip of whiskey and scanned the plains, feeling 
well rewarded for my sufferings. 

Only one thing darkened this idyll, and we discovered the fatal 
flaw during dinner. We luxuriated over chicken with cream of leek 
sauce and rice, and drank about ten liters of eau filtre , while we dis- 
cussed the amazing number of lizards which inhabited our rooms, 
crawling on the walls, the floors, and the screens. We laughed over 
how fat these lizards were, for in other parts of Cameroon the liz- 
ards had been lean and sleek. But the ones at Waza were all chubby, 
even bloated-looking, as they dragged themselves around the rooms. 
No one could suggest a reason for their obesity, but there was one. 

Suddenly we all began to twitch, breathing little curses as we 
slapped at our arms and legs, then started scratching. Mosquitoes! 
Swarms of them filled the air, even in the dining room, and as we 
retreated in horror I noticed that the outside of the screen door was 
covered in a mass of insects. The boggy lake that supported the 
Crowned Cranes was also a prolific breeding ground for mosquitoes, 
and when night fell they came looking for blood. 

We opened and closed the door of our room as quickly as we 
could, but the air was already alive with flying things. 

“Well, now we know why the lizards are so fat,” said Leonard, 
clawing at his legs, “They’re nearly as well-fed as the mosquitoes!” 

I started swatting, while Leonard, our electrical engineer, de- 
cided to see if the non-functioning air conditioner could be made to 
work. A few sparks shot out of the motor as he fiddled with a screw- 
driver, and then it came to life with a roar. It was as ineffectual as 
all the other air conditioners we’d encountered, but at least the fan 
stirred the air around. 


254 



Neil Peart 


Just as we were settling into our beds for the night, there was a 
knock at the door and a voice called out, “Hello? Are you guys 
awake?” It was Annie. 

“Yeah, hello. What’s up?” said David. 

“Um ... Can you help us?” she called through the door. 

“What’s the problem?” 

“Well, we ... we left our windows open when we were at dinner, 
and ... and somehow the light was on too ... and well, now our room 
is full of bugs ... and the air conditioner doesn’t work either.” 

“So what do you want me to do?” he asked. 

“Well, um ... maybe you could talk to the people here. See, if ... 
you know ... we could get another room, or something. It’s really aw- 
ful.” 

With a sigh, David got up again, and he and Leonard went to see 
what they could do. Fifteen minutes later they were back, Leonard 
shaking his head. “Man, it’s really bad over there. Millions of bugs, 
sweltering hot, and poor Elsa’s just huddled under a sheet. Not mov- 
ing, not talking. We couldn’t get them another room, or fix the air 
conditioner, but we got them some bug spray. I think they’re in for a 
miserable night.” 

I hunted down a few more mosquitoes, smashed them on the 
wall, cheered the lizards on — “Move your big butts and eat bugs!” 
— then turned out the light. That night the bugs got fat, the lizards 
got fatter, and those of us lower down the food chain lost a bit of 
blood. 


Had we been the tiniest bit prescient, we might have taken some 
of those lizards with us the following day, when we traveled on to 
Ndiguina, which means: “Place where big bugs will eat you all 
night.” I think. Ndiguina was only ten miles from Waza, but the idea 
was to avoid the extortionate rates of the Campement for a second 
night, and to get a jump on the next day’s seventy-mile ride, the 
longest yet, with possible headwinds and drifting sand. 

The day began with a drive through the game park, bouncing 
over the bush tracks in the box of a Daihatsu truck which David had 


255 



The Masked Rider 


arranged to hire. I had been looking forward to this game drive for 
the whole trip, remembering the excitement of animal-spotting from 
my previous year’s visit to East Africa. David had warned me that I 
might be disappointed at the much smaller scale of Waza, but as I 
stood in the back of the truck, holding tight to the frame rail behind 
the cab, I felt the old thrill of the bush. 

Through my binoculars I watched giraffes and elephants browse 
among the groves of red acacia, and giant ostriches stalking the sa- 
vanna. Warthogs scurried for cover, their tails up like antennae; 
families of lithe little Thomson’s Gazelles bounded away like rabbits, 
and a few jackals loped off at our approach. The striking Secretary 
Bird, the only bird of prey which hunts on foot, searched out snakes 
and rodents in the dry grass, while overhead the hawks and vul- 
tures circled on the rising thermals. 

As abundant water gives richness to life, so too it brings color, as 
in the deep tones of the rainforests in southern Cameroon. But in 
the north, where lack of water drained life from the earth, the land- 
scape became colorless, the grass pale and limp, the trees gray and 
dessicated. This contrast was evident in people’s clothing as well: 
bright floral prints in the south, plain light-colored robes in the 
north. Even the sky was drained of blue by the Harmattan dust, so 
the atmosphere in the game park was wild and bleak. The gray 
earth was cratered by elephant footprints, giant impressions left in 
the rainy season and now fossilized in the hard soil like dinosaur 
tracks. 

When we completed our four-hour circuit of the park, I told 
David that I was certainly not disappointed by all this, but when he 
was out of earshot, paying off the guide, Elsa complained she 
thought the drive had been too long. Like a few of the group I’d 
traveled with in East Africa, the idea of looking at wild animals 
seemed exciting to Elsa, but the novelty wore off quickly. It never 
did for me; I loved the expectant watchfulness, standing in the open 
box of the truck and holding onto a topframe bar against the jolting 
road, peering intently at the grass and trees. Then the reward — a 
hint of motion, a solid shape, a glimpse of life in the wild. 


256 



Neil Peart 


In the late afternoon we cycled on to Ndiguina, where a brief 
gauntlet of mud walls interrupted the dead-flat savanna of the Chad 
Basin. Smiling, ragged children surrounded us as we stopped in the 
village, and one pleasant-faced little boy kept reciting “Guinness is 
good for you.” He intoned it like a radio announcer, which was prob- 
ably where he’d learned it, for it was the only English he knew. 
While the children danced around us happily, staring at us and our 
bicycles, we smiled and spoke to them in English and French, but 
they only laughed in response. The little boy repeated his invoca- 
tion. 

And then it got dark, and we discovered that we had no place to 
stay. David managed to negotiate our most rustic accommodations 
yet: a mud-plastered shed, perhaps eight feet by twelve. The interior 
was small, hot, gravel-floored, airless, and very dark. It was also 
very crowded once we’d squeezed in our bicycles and five bodies. The 
door and one tiny window were both on the same wall, and covered 
by white cloth, so that kept out the air. But not the bugs. I tried to 
read by the kerosene lantern, but had to blow it out when David 
complained about the smell and Elsa that it was attracting bugs. 
Then I tried the flashlight on my shoulder, but gave that up when 
the beam of light filled with flying things. 

The swampy lowlands surrounding Ndiguina were perfect mos- 
quito havens, and for once the metaphor “clouds of insects” was en- 
tirely apt. I had to bury myself in the sleeping bag and pagne, but 
soon I was sweating and twitching in my shroud. Any patch of ex- 
posed flesh became a target, so I couldn’t move, and I could barely 
breathe beneath the pagne. Even then, the constant whining of hun- 
gry insects around my swaddled head was nearly as maddening as 
the bites. Somewhere in my panniers I carried some bug repellent, 
but I knew there was no point covering myself in that greasy, smelly 
stuff — it never seemed to impress African bugs. 

Dripping with sweat, I crept outside and sat against the wall, 
my pagne over my head like a shawl. It felt good to breathe again, 
and the stars were brilliant in the moonless sky. However, the vora- 
cious wildlife soon drove me back inside, under the sticky sleeping 
bag with the cloth around my head. It was one of the longest nights 
of my life, and I saw every hour of it go by — waking from a shallow, 
sweaty doze and pulling the Casio up to my face to push the button 
and illuminate it: 10:27... 11:16 ... 0:21 ... 1:13 ... 2:34 ... 3:12 ... 4:23 


257 



The Masked Rider 


I was on my bike and out of there by 5:30, before the sky was 
even light, pedaling through the darkness and scratching furiously. 
My self-pity had turned to sympathy for those who had to live in 
Ndiguina, but all I could think to do was leave a handful of pens in 
the shed for the children, hoping the “Guinness is good for you” boy 
would get one. 

By the light of the stars and a fingernail moon I could just make 
out the road. A line of salmon and gray light spread from the east, 
and gradually the landscape became visible. A few pied crows flew 
by me in the twilight, and beyond them stretched the savanna, dot- 
ted by trees. The sun gilded the top of the reeds and grasses beside 
the road, and stretches of water reflected the pale sky. These 
patches of wetland were the remnants of the rainy-season floodplain 
which extended around Lake Chad, and supported an abundance of 
birdlife. A sudden rustle in the long grass triggered a rising wave of 
weavers, thousands of them squeaking upward in a ragged cloud. 
Their wings were caught in the rising sun like a strobe-flash, hold- 
ing their flight in slow motion. Egrets and herons lumbered into the 
air and landed heavily in a shallow pond; a flock of ibis, with their 
slender down-turned bills, arrowed overhead. Hawks and vultures 
began their morning reconnaissance, while a flight of black and 
white storks came to rest among the reeds. The red ball on the hori- 
zon rose a little higher, and turned to gold. 

A few other people were out already. Men stood in the water up 
to their waists, bare-chested and muscular as they hauled in nets of 
small silver fish. Boats drifted through the reeds, fishermen laying 
their paddles across the gunwales and taking up a bamboo pole. At 
the roadside villages children sold black curls of smoked fish, and 
some of them called out “Nasarra” as I passed, pronounced with a 
harsh rolling “r.” 

Although water was plentiful, little grew except grass and thorn 
trees, but despite the impoverished soil a few small fields had been 
cleared, and women walked to them balancing great wooden- 
handled picks on their heads. Men even helped with the fieldwork, 
and once I saw an incredible sight — a man and a woman working 
together. 

By mid-morning I had covered the sixty miles to Maltam, where 
we’d agreed to meet, and settled in the shade by a boarded-up shop. 
This northern neck of Cameroon was barely ten miles wide, and 
Maltam marked the intersection of the north-south highway with a 


258 



Neil Peart 


main route running east-west from Nigeria to Chad. Thus Maltam 
was merely a few mean shops and chophouses clustered around a 
base for the military, to keep their eyes, and guns, on this traffic. 
Soldiers blanketed the area like their army-ant namesakes, pouring 
in and out of the barracks and descending on everyone who traveled 
through Maltam. Blue-shirted gendarmes wandered among the 
khaki uniforms like workers among the drones, but I never minded 
the policemen quite as much as the soldiers. Perhaps because, at 
least in principle, those uniforms ought to mean different things. In 
Africa, though, the distinction between police and military was often 
blurred. 

After a while a gendarme strolled by my resting place, had a po- 
lite look at my passport, then left me alone. I was lucky. Every ve- 
hicle was stopped and searched thoroughly, and when David and the 
others arrived they were held up for half an hour while their posses- 
sions were dissected. Annie was obliged to assemble her folding 
backpack so the soldiers could see what all those aluminum struts 
were for, and they were strangely curious about Leonard’s postcards 
(of Cameroon!), and wondered where he’d bought his History of 
Cameroon (in Bamenda). 

After all that, the mood was low as we gathered at a chophouse 
and stretched out on the benches beneath a threadbare arbor. We 
bought a few bottles of soda from a massive lady, then settled into 
an uneasy quiet, no one suggesting our next move. A Black-faced 
Vervet monkey, chained to one of the vines, climbed aimlessly up 
and down David’s bike. I tried to coax it into posing on the saddle — 
for a Bicycle Africa poster, I told David — but it wouldn’t sit still. It 
was restless, tied down, and wanted to be moving. I knew the feel- 
ing. 

The plan had been to stay in Maltam, but there were too many 
soldiers, too many trucks, and no real town at all. The thought of 
another night like Ndiguina was not thrilling to me, and I hoped the 
others felt the same. Only twenty more miles would put us in 
Kousseri, a proper town, and right across the river from N’djamena, 
in Chad, where we would catch our flights out. Out — the power of 
that word! 

Two soldiers sat in the corner working through a row of beer 
bottles. I’d noticed them staring at us, especially Leonard, and even- 
tually I was drawn into conversation with them. "I am from Canada, 


259 



The Masked Rider 


my friends are from les Etats-Unis. Yes, him also. He is from Califor- 
nia. Yes, he was born there. Yes, there are many noirs in Amerique. 
No, he doesn’t know his ethnic group.” 

The soldiers looked at me in beery wonderment, that a black 
man wouldn’t know his ethnic group, always the most important so- 
cial division to Africans — one’s tribe, one’s extended family. One of 
the abiding problems facing African nationalism is the difficulty in 
convincing people to pledge their allegiance to their nation rather 
than to their tribe. Nearly thirty years after independence, 
Cameroon, like all African countries, was still rigidly divided into 
peoples. Tribal conflicts within a country were responsible for most 
of the violence, the bloody coups d'etat, and even wholesale geno- 
cide, as in Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda, where tens of thousands 
were massacred for being in the “wrong” tribe. Then the “wrong” 
tribe gained power, and massacred tens of thousands of them . 

On the Ibgo-Ghana tour David was assisted by an American girl 
who had been a Peace corps volunteer in neighboring Benin, where 
one local tribe had enslaved another for centuries — ended only by a 
Marxist revolution in the 1960s. People of the dominant tribe had 
told her that white Americans were right to look down on black 
Americans — those former slaves had all come from that other tribe, 
who were only good for slaves. People of their tribe, they assured 
her, would never have been taken. 

So when I told the soldier in the fat lady’s chophouse in Maltam 
that Leonard didn’t know his ethnic group, he burst out in shock, “II 
ne connait pas?" He doesn’t know? 

“Non," I said, “II ne connait pas," and I started to explain that 
tribal origins weren’t so important to North Americans, but then an- 
other level of my brain began thinking deeper, of barrios, ghettos, 
and reservations, and I stopped myself. Ib the soldiers I rationalized 
weakly “It doesn’t mean the same thing,” but to myself I thought 
about it more. In traditional African life, your tribe said everything 
about you, and a stranger would “know” you by those signs, know 
about your village, your people, and your ways, in the same way an 
Englishman “knows” a stranger by his accent, or a North American 
‘knows” a stranger by his profession. In Europe “where were you 
born?”; in America “what do you do?”; in Africa “what is your tribe?” 

But for three WASPs, one black American, and David the JAM 
(Jewish American Masochist, as we christened him one night), the 


260 



Neil Peart 


problem was what to do now. “Doesn’t look like there’s anywhere to 
stay here,” I ventured, and this comment was received with noncom- 
mittal mumbles and grunts. Then to David, “Kousseri’s only about 
eighteen miles away; what’s it like there?” He said that yes, 
Kousseri was more of a town, and we could probably do better there 
than the “rustic accommodations” Maltam was sure to provide, 
Ndiguina-style. 

“So then.” I looked around at this apathetic group sprawled 
across the benches, and asked if anyone wanted to, like, go there. It 
seemed everyone did, but was somehow reluctant to say so, but 
eventually we agreed to wait until the midday heat abated, then go 
for Kousseri. Fine, that’s settled, I thought, and fiddled with an 
unread page of Aristotle until 2:00 came along, time passing as 
slowly as it had the previous night. 

While I stood outside the arbor where the bikes were parked, 
pushing the Ethics back into its slot in my pannier and putting on 
my gloves and helmet, I heard the fat lady talking to David. She 
was complaining that I’d taken a picture of her monkey and hadn’t 
paid her. As I pushed my bike toward the road, I heard David say 
that she’d been there when I took the photo, she should have said 
something then. When I straddled the bar and shoved onto the high- 
way, slipping my feet into the pedals and rolling away, I heard her 
complaining voice rising and falling, then fading behind me. 

The eighteen miles to Kousseri took me through an uninhabited 
stretch of the Chad Plain, both sides of the road a flat vista of grass 
and thorns. Yellow baboons crossed the pavement in twos and 
threes, scurrying away when a car or truck sped by. The drivers who 
had finally escaped the soldiers of Maltam, no doubt after the pay- 
ment of a heavy “dash,” seemed especially urgent and reckless, hur- 
tling their ancient cars and overloaded trucks down the highway at 
white-knuckle speeds (meaning that I had the white knuckles). A 
sign warned of a unique hazard — a yellow triangle enclosed the sil- 
houette of an elephant, indicating “elephant crossing.” 

I looked up at an unfamiliar sound, a distant roar in the sky, 
and saw a big silver jet descending to N’djamena. So close. The pre- 
vious day I had mentioned to Leonard how long it had been since I’d 
even heard an airplane, and now the muffled roar of this one struck 
me with the same sense of unfamiliarity as Ontario licence plates do 
when I’ve been away too long. 


261 




Either the crazy chief or the chief crazy. 
Guave. 


262 



afrisan !>i|ktinarss 



Kousseri welcomed me with “open arms” — rifle-toting soldiers 
at a roadblock. A bus waited beside me, the driver dozing over the 
wheel while he awaited his release. The sign atop his bus provided 
us both with an appropriate overview: Tout passe. La vie continue. 
Everything passes. Life goes on. Another bit of “bus wisdom,” and its 
opposite is equally true: Everything goes on. Life passes. 

Kousseri was a town of powdery dust and corrugated metal 
which had grown on the banks of the Logone River, the border with 
Chad. The river’s presence brought color to life again, and I 
wheeled into town along a road bordered with bushy green trees, 
past a multi-colored roadside market and a chaotic bus park, then 
went to find a hotel before the others arrived. Shouts of “nasaara!” 
followed me down the street. 

L’Hotel Kousseri Moderne obliged us to enact a small charade: 
The manager would not permit two men or two women to share a 
room, and it was also less expensive for mixed couples, so we 
switched bicycles and moved into the rooms as two couples and a 
single, then changed when the manager was out of sight. 

After a look at the dining room, we decided to explore other op- 
tions, but after searching through the dark streets of Kousseri we 
ended up eating at another hotel anyway — actually the other hotel. 
We hadn’t taken our flashlights, thinking Kousseri was a city and 
would surely have streetlights, but the streets were visible only by 
feeble starlight, a few lighted windows, or a passing car. We walked 
uneasily through the soft dust, picking our way between the shad- 
ows of houses and fenced yards. 


263 



The Masked Rider 


Over a dinner of chicken and fries, David told us about the last 
time he’d visited Kousseri, when the N’djamena airport, right across 
the river in Chad, had been bombed by a rebel airstrike. A possible 
reason for Kousseri’s blackout (other than “it has been seized”): 
When you live next door to a military target, you try not to be mis- 
taken for that target. 

L’Hotel Kousseri Moderne lived up to its name by means of 
plumbing, electricity, and air conditioning, all more-or-less function- 
ing, though the air conditioner made more noise than coolness. 
David and I shared a room with only one double bed, but any 
squeamishness we might once have felt was long dissolved. Two het- 
erosexual adults of the same gender learn to sleep in a straight mo- 
tionless line on the farthest edge of the bed, and to tune out the 
other’s snoring. 


With only a border to cross — only — we slept late the following 
morning, though late for us was 6:45. We packed up and rode our 
bikes to a restaurant near the market and bus park, waving off a 
few “rcasaara” s along the way. While we sat over our omelettes and 
Nescafes, an unusually fashionable young man approached our 
table, wearing Rayban knockoffs and trendy acid-washed jacket and 
jeans. Our smiles froze as he pulled a badge from his acid-washed 
pocket (a fancy-clothed plainclothes cop) and demanded our papers. 
While he carefully examined each passport and asked us all the 
usual questions, we mumbled some jokes about “Kousseri Vice” and 
“the Spycatcher.” 

Even David, usually so circumspect around authority, became a 
little belligerent with the sharp-dressed undercover gendarme's in- 
terrogations. When the cop finally left us, he muttered after him, 
“No promotion for you today, huh?” The acid-washed back walked on 
out the door without seeming to flinch, but I’d hate to think a venge- 
ful gendarme had any part in what happened later. 

While we waited for David at the post office, I noticed a group of 
children playing across the road, and decided to clear out my re- 


264 



Neil Peart 


maining stock of Bic retractables. The pens were scratched and 
worn from bouncing around in my pack, but the bright colors re- 
mained, and I had enough for all of the children. I called them over 
and presented one to each of them, and they went mad with delight, 
running around screaming with joy, waving the pens in the air, 
drawing on their arms and legs, and hanging the pens from their 
collars, their pockets, or their waists, like holsters. 

We followed the Logone River to the bridge, passing through a 
stretch of dusty, windblown, garbage-strewn slums — a hell-hole 
even worse than Kumba, the original hell-hole. Nameless things 
smoldered, the stench of excrement stung my nostrils, goats nosed 
through heaps of refuse spilling across the road, and dirty and aban- 
doned-looking children wailed from tumbledown doorways. 

Only the river smiled behind it all, a wide stretch of calm water 
where women bent over their washing, though even its banks were 
fouled and rubbish- strewn. When I mentioned that this was the 
most squalid scene we’d encountered yet, Annie responded, “I don’t 
know, I thought it was kind of nice by the river, all the women doing 
their laundry along the shore.” Not the response you might expect 
from a modern, liberated woman. 

Our first three-mile ride to the bridge didn’t even get us out of 
Cameroon. The soldier in charge of the lowered barrier insisted we 
had to have an exit visa. Many countries require you to produce a 
visa in order to enter , but I’d never heard of needing a separate visa 
to leave. David asked the soldier, with surprise in his voice, “C’est 
necessaireV * and the stern soldier answered, with indignation: “C’est 
absolument necessaireV' 

Had we been more “sophisticated” travelers, once again we 
might have smoothed our way by the distribution of a little largesse , 
but we still hadn’t learned the African doublespeak: When I say I 
want this , I’m really saying I want that. I’m asking for your papers, 
but I really want some money. David was well aware of this layered 
mode of communication, but refused to conform to such a system. In 
Ghana, where the officers came right out and asked you “And what 
have you brought for me today?” David would simply answer: “I’ll 
pretend I didn’t hear that.” I couldn’t blame him for resisting, but a 
little “dash” might have lubricated the wheels of hassle that day. 


265 



The Masked Rider 


However, the rest of us being geometric thinkers facing a differ- 
ent order of reality, we took the soldier at his word and turned 
around to go back to Kousseri. After much searching and asking, we 
finally located the Emigration office, but my heart sank when I saw 
the lineup outside — thirty people sitting under the overhanging 
roof, waiting with that incredible African patience. Biding their 
time; cooling their heels; waiting. No one moved; no one spoke; they 
looked as if they might have been sitting there, in suspended anima- 
tion, for days. Boys strolled by offering trays of oranges, peanuts, 
and cigarettes, and one held up a stack of plastic-wrapped blouses, 
but no one even looked at them. They hardly even noticed us — the 
most popular crowd-pleasers in all Cameroon — just glanced up for 
a moment, then returned to that inner place where they could sim- 
ply be until it was time to do. 

The office door was open, so we went in and stood before a bald 
man leafing through a stack of papers, and wearing the usual lei- 
sure-suit uniform of the functionary. He looked up for a moment, 
and David explained what we needed. The functionary took our 
passports, piled them on the desk beside him, told us to wait out- 
side, then went back to his sheaf of papers. 

And we waited. For two long hours, like one of those passage-of- 
time sequences in a movie, where the camera blurs in and out on 
the characters standing, then sitting, then pacing, then sitting 
again, we waited. A nervous knot grew in my stomach; we only had 
one day now. If we missed the next day’s flight there wouldn’t be an- 
other for a whole week. 

A middle-aged Frenchman drove up to the Emigration office in a 
Peugeot, handed in his passport, then joined us waiting outside. He 
was well-suited and prosperous-looking, a businessman or civil ser- 
vant, and exchanged a few comments with David and me on the 
frustrations of African bureaucracy. He warned us that Chad would 
be much worse. He wasn’t wrong. 

Not one of the locals had approached the office or been sum- 
moned. Perhaps they had no papers, or were waiting for some spe- 
cial permit to emerge from the bureaucratic maw, but I felt a little 
uneasy, not for the first time, that we foreigners were getting some 
attention at least, while these people just waited, ignored. At the 


266 



Neil Peart 


bank back in Bamenda David and I had submitted our traveler’s 
cheques and been told to join the waiting throng in the corner. It 
had looked as though we were in for a long wait, but in a few min- 
utes our names were called, and we had to push our way through 
the crowd to get to the front and receive our money. Yet there had 
been no protests, no dirty looks; it was accepted that the whites 
would be served first. And this in black Africa, almost thirty years 
after independence. In many parts of West Africa, if there’s no sol- 
dier to ride up front in the buses, the white person does. And as 
George Packer wrote in The Village Of Waiting, you can’t really pro- 
test — not only because you don’t, mind escaping a tedious lineup, 
but because making a scene in the Emigration office is not necessar- 
ily the way to change social attitudes in a foreign country. But in 
Kousseri it happened again. When our two hours had ticked by we 
were called up to receive our passports, newly decorated in red ink, 
while the locals still sat there, dozing against the wall. 

Finally armed with that precious stamp, we followed the de- 
pressing river back to the bridge. This time we weren’t even stopped 
on the Cameroon side. A boy came out of the hut, raised the barri- 
cade, and we pedaled onto the one-lane bridge over the Logone, our 
very own Rubicon. 

Chad’s entry in the Britannica yearbook for 1987: “Form of Gov- 
ernment: military regime with no political parties or legislative bod- 
ies. Civil war has raged more or less constantly since 1969.” 

And it had been a nasty one. Libya was Chad’s unfriendly neigh- 
bor to the north, and had involved itself heavily in Chad’s affairs, 
fighting an undeclared war with France for paternal control of the 
country. The northern rebels were backed by Libyan troops and 
arms, while the south was backed by France, and as many as five 
different private armies vied for internal control. Thousands of civil- 
ians had been massacred in the capital, N’djamena — the other end 
of that little bridge we were crossing. 

Literacy rate 17%. One doctor per 47,640 people, only ninety- 
four in the whole country. Life expectancy: male 43.4 years, female 
46.6. Fewer than half as many people as Cameroon, but more than 
twice as many soldiers. We were welcomed to Chad by a phalanx of 
those soldiers, whose automatic weapons directed us to a collection 


267 



The Masked Rider 


of tin huts squatting in the roadside dust. In one of them our pass- 
ports were scrutinized, then we were directed to another hut to fill 
out some forms. Questions in French seemed to come at us from all 
sides, from soldiers, police, and civil servants, some in uniform and 
some not, so that we couldn’t tell who was “official” and who was 
just curious. David and I did our best to answer them all, including 
the inevitable questions about Leonard. 

Sent on to a third hut, we filled out yet another series of forms, 
these ones even demanding such sensitive data as our mothers’ 
maiden names. This officer had a smattering of English, which was 
helpful, though he nervously hovered over every detail on our 
forms, concerned that everything be properly “in the French lan- 
guage.” The first hitch arose when we were asked to provide a pho- 
tograph to accompany our forms; Elsa had none. The officer was 
plainly distressed about that, but after much discussion he finally 
agreed to let her through without it. Another officer accompanied us 
to our bikes, our panniers were given a perfunctory search, then we 
found ourselves standing alone by the road. I saw the middle-aged 
Frenchman we’d met earlier engaged in an arm-waving argument 
with a functionary, who waved papers at him in return, but no one 
seemed to be paying any attention to us for the moment. 

“You think we can go?” I said to David. 

He shook his head. “I doubt it.” 

We decided to try anyway, and pushed our bikes up to the road, 
but that was as far as we got. A fat leisure-suit ran out of another 
hut and hauled us back again. This hut was like a carnival kiosk, 
with a single raised shutter open to the road. The square window 
was filled by a crowd of men wearing robes and untidy rag-heads, 
some of them with tribal scarification marks carved into their 
cheeks, and the combination of faces and costumes resembled a bi- 
zarre puppet show. The fat leisure-suit took his place in their midst, 
faced us across the counter, and demanded the papers for our bi- 
cycles. 

The five of us looked at each other. Papers for our bicycles? I 
tried to explain that these were our own bikes, brought from our 
homes in the U.S. and Canada, that they would be returning with 
us, and that there was no such thing as papers for bicycles. Now the 


268 



Neil Peart 


functionary became a little agitated, and waved a carnet in front of 
me — the permit to allow a car to be imported. I pointed out that 
this carnet was for a car, not a bicycle, but he still insisted we had to 
have one. I explained that I had visited many countries with my bi- 
cycle, and crossed many borders, but had never needed any “papers” 
for it, and again, that there was no such thing. “Qa n’existe pas.” 
The knot in my stomach was growing again. 

I sensed uncertainty in the functionary’s manner, and could tell 
that he was unsure of his ground. He’d probably never had to deal 
with bicycle-riding tourists before, but he was determined to cover 
himself. Perhaps he believed me, but in a rubber-stamp military re- 
gime the blame would fall heavily if he was wrong, and he couldn’t 
take that chance. 

A muttered conference ensued among the puppets, while David 
whispered to me that he wished he could take a photograph of this 
crew. Then Mr. Leisure Suit held out his hand and demanded our 
passports. The knot tightened. As we passed them over, he told us 
we would have to accompany him into N’djamena to have this 
straightened out. He held the trump card — our passports — and 
there was nothing else we could do. 

A dusty blue Peugeot pulled up beside us, and a leisure-suited 
arm waved us to go. As we pushed off, David suggested we not 
hurry too much; maybe this guy would lose patience with us and 
give up. So we all pedaled at Elsa’s pace. Through a filter of ner- 
vousness and irritation I was vaguely aware of a landscape of brown 
dust and mud houses baking in the midday heat. People walked 
slowly along the road beside us, dressed in pale colorless clothes. 
The Peugeot drove in front for a while, then stopped to wait, and 
drove on ahead once more. Still we maintained our leisurely pace, 
all of us silent and uneasy, as we slowly covered the five miles into 
N’djamena. I memorized the Peugeot’s licence number, TCB 2394 P, 
but as it turned out, everyone had the same idea. 

Sparse, drooping trees bordered the streets as we entered the 
city’s outskirts. Small motorcycles and mopeds buzzed by, among a 
few rundown cars and trucks. The foul-smelling ditches at the road- 
side were covered with concrete slabs, and everything wore a brown 


269 



The Masked Rider 


skin of dust. Many of the buildings were bombed-out, their lower 
floors vacant caves, and nearly all of the walls were bullet-spattered. 
Just as it had been difficult to picture that cluster of huts at the 
bridge as an international border, it was difficult to picture 
N’djamena as a nation’s capital. 

David pulled up at the roadside and pointed across the street. 
“There’s the U.S. Embassy, do you think I should go in?” Yes, we 
agreed, good idea, let’s get some help if we can. David left his bike 
with us and went into the gatehouse of the embassy. The high walls, 
iron gates, and armed guards were a dark contrast to the quiet 
openness of the American embassy in Yaounde. Leonard pointed out 
that the Chad soldiers guarding the entrance carried Soviet auto- 
matic weapons. 

The Peugeot stopped in front of us, and the functionary’s arm 
reached out the window and waved us on. I shook my head repeat- 
edly, until finally he got out of the car and walked back to me. He 
said that we should just follow him to the Douanes office and get 
this taken care of, but again I shook my head. I told him we’d check 
with the embassy first, and continued the argument begun at the 
puppet-kiosk. Heartened by the American presence, I was irate and 
more confident, and went into a flight of French I wouldn’t have 
thought myself capable of, telling him to give our passports back 
and leave us alone, there was no such thing as a carnet for bicycles 
— qa n’existe pas! — all delivered with a perfect Gallic sweep of my 
arms. My shining hour en franqais , after years of effort, even had its 
effect on the functionary. He was visibly nervous now, sweat break- 
ing on his wrinkled forehead as he pointed to his watch and half- 
heartedly tried to wave us on. Again I frowned and shook my head, 
and he went back to his car and drove away, still holding the win- 
ning hand — our passports. 

David returned and told us the embassy staff were at lunch, but 
we felt we’d made our statement to the functionary at least, and set 
off to find the office of the Douanes. Outside the humble tin-roofed 
building we searched among the many dusty blue Peugeots until we 
found the one — TCB 2394 P — then went to find our man. 

Accompanied by a tall, dignified superior, the functionary was 
more nervous than we were now, sweat pouring down his face as he 


270 



Neil Peart 


tried to explain the situation to his boss. Unperturbed, the tall man 
asked us a few questions about our journey, then looked at our bikes 
and asked if we were carrying any armes. I saw Leonard conceal a 
smile as I assured the man that our packs contained no bombs or 
automatic weapons, and, satisfied, he handed back our passports 
and turned away. The functionary followed a step behind him, walk- 
ing quickly to match his boss’s long stride, still afraid he was going 
to be blamed for something. 

We headed across town to find the Hotel Hirondelle, which was 
listed in Africa On A Shoestring as N’djamena’s “only cheap hotel.” 
Some claim to fame. As we searched through a network of narrow, 
reeking dirt streets behind the market, I finally began to overdose 
on squalor. I knew there was a French Novotel in town, and as we 
stood before the seedy, collapsing structure of the Hirondelle, 
breathing the stench of excrement and garbage and surrounded by a 
mob of ragged and dirty children, I quietly suggested that I’d be 
glad to pay for my own room if anyone else wanted to treat them- 
selves to the Novotel. No one spoke up, and I wasn’t yet desperate 
enough to go off on my own, so into the Hirondelle we went. 

The whole ground floor was taken up by a dingy bar, furnished 
with benches and wobbly tables. The “rooms” were on the roof, five 
or six concrete cubes and a shared “bathroom” — a filthy sink drain- 
ing onto the floor and a toilet encrusted with I-don’t-want-to-know. 
It was my turn for the single room, and I scraped open the door to a 
cell of turquoise plaster riddled with cracks and soiled by years of 
grime, a slab of sponge on the bed covered by a stained cloth, and a 
rusty ceiling fan. Unaccountably, the fan actually worked. The 
Hirondelle, N’djamena’s “only cheap hotel,” was the lowest point 
we’d reached in our rustic accommodations, but hopefully it was the 
last one. And at least they had cold drinks. 

We learned the banks were only open from 7:00 until 11:00 in 
the morning, so we couldn’t exchange any money. David had a little 
Chad currency, but the rest of us were now paupers. The airline of- 
fices maintained similarly strange hours, but re-opened at 4:00 in 
the afternoon, so David and I set out to confirm everyone’s flights 
for the next day. Two young men opened the UTA office nearly on 
time, and I was relieved to learn that I still had a seat on the plane, 


271 



The Masked Rider 


as did Leonard and Elsa. David and Annie were flying out on Air 
Afrique to Mali, Annie to meet a friend and travel in that country, 
while David would cycle down to Abidjan to meet his next tour 
group. 

Remembering the morning’s hassle over exit visas, I asked the 
UTA man if we needed anything like that to leave Chad. “Oui,” he 
said, we needed a stamp from the Gendarmerie. But then he shook 
his head, saying that he didn’t think we could get it in time. Again I 
felt a sinking heart and rising fear. Only one flight a week, we must 
not miss it! So off we sped to the Gendarmerie. 

Along the way I noticed that N’djamena was not only a military 
capital, it was a military city. The majority of its citizens seemed to 
be dressed in olive drab and camouflage, and carried weapons as 
they filed in and out of the huge barracks. Jeeps and army trucks 
made up most of the traffic among the bombed-out buildings and 
bullet- sprayed walls. N’djamena’s atmosphere was tense and uneasy, 
and so was I. 

In the large compound which housed the police and immigration 
offices, we were shuffled around until at last we were directed to a 
blue leisure-suited man who reclined in a canvas chair, relaxing in 
the shade outside his office. He took our passports, glanced through 
them, then stood and led the way to another office, marked Immi- 
gration Et Emigration, but it was closed. Then he announced he 
would keep our passports, and we could return the following morn- 
ing and reclaim them with the necessary stamp. David and I were 
doubtful, and argued that we would need them with us to deal with 
banks, hotels, the U.S. Embassy, and — thinking of our experiences 
in Cameroon — what about the soldiers and police wanting to see 
our papers? He shrugged off our protests, insisting we would have 
“pas de problemes” with the soldiers and police, and that it was bet- 
ter if he kept the passports. The nightmare was growing, and I was 
becoming frantic. I held my hand out to him, insisting, as politely as 
I could, that he give us the passports, but, just as politely, he re- 
fused. 

When he turned to leave, we followed like children, pushing our 
bikes and refusing to go without our passports. “S’il vous plait , 
m’sieur” I entreated as we walked along, but he only held them 


272 



Neil Peart 


closer to his chest. He stopped before another functionary, and again 
we insisted on our need for the passports. The other man conceded 
that we would need our passports to check into a hotel, and, hoping 
that might sway the situation, we didn’t mention that we had al- 
ready been accepted at “N’djamena’s only cheap hotel.” 

We followed on, across the road to a military compound, where a 
crowd of soldiers lounged under the trees, drinking and laughing. 
He led us to the office of the Bureau des Etrangers, the Office of For- 
eigners, where another functionary sat behind a desk piled in forms 
with photographs stapled to them, like the ones we’d filled out at 
the border. This leisure-suit insisted that we would also have to see 
him before we could leave the country, and fill out another set of 
these forms, with our entire histories down to our mothers’ maiden 
names, plus present him with another photograph. Unbelievable. At 
least, though, we managed to reclaim our passports, and raced 
straight back to the U.S. Embassy. Help! 

David went through the gate of the embassy while I waited out- 
side with the bikes, feeling scared. So much uncertainty and hassle, 
strangers walking away with our passports, the threat of not being 
able to make the next day’s flight, the terror of spending a week in 
N’djamena waiting for another one — all of it was adding up to a 
genuine physical malaise, and I felt shaky and unwell. I sat on the 
curb, staring at the ground, and felt the icy tingling of fever play on 
my nerves and blur my vision. 

David emerged at last, having learned nothing except that the 
attache would look into it for us and let us know in the morning. I 
stood up with difficulty, feeling weak, dizzy, and nauseous, and 
mounted my bicycle. In one of those feverish hallucinations, I felt as 
if I were twenty feet above the ground, but I managed to pedal un- 
steadily back to the Hirondelle. Even that mean sanctuary was wel- 
come, and I collapsed onto the foam slab of my bed. But then sud- 
denly I was up again, stumbling across the roof to the “bathroom.” 

My body exploded violently, vomit and diarrhea one after the 
other, and then again. I shuddered and retched painfully, shaking 
my head between bouts like a punch-drunk fighter. Weak and shiv- 
ering, I crept back to my room and sprawled across the bed again, 
groaning in despair, then a few minutes later had to make another 
run across the roof. 


273 



The Masked Rider 


A powerful thirst arose in the wake of the repeated purges, and 
I had soon drunk the rest of my clean water, then spent the last few 
Chad francs I’d borrowed from David on two bottles of soda. When I 
went down to the bar to get them, the colors and lights seemed to 
blare at me, while sounds were muffled and brassy. My head 
throbbed and my legs were weak as I mounted the stairs to my roof- 
top cell. Then I felt my insides rising up, and ran to the toilet yet 
again. Unable even to get over the target, I had to “shoot” from a 
distance, though I couldn’t believe there was anything left to come 
out. There seemed to be plenty. After the cramping agony of dry 
heaves, I stumbled, bent over, back to the cell and collapsed once 
again. I didn’t even bother with clothes any more, just lay beneath 
my pagne and wrapped it around my waist when I had to go. 

I lost all sense of time in this abject misery, and wished now that 
I’d just gone ahead on my own and checked into the Novotel. My de- 
spair left me without hope, and now I was afraid I’d be trapped in 
N’djamena for some indeterminate time — maybe even more than a 
week — to recover from this illness. If that happened, I decided, I 
was going to move to a real hotel, and suffer in some semblance of 
human dignity, if not luxury. 

David knocked on my door when everyone was leaving for din- 
ner, but I couldn’t face the thought of food, and just asked him to 
bring me something to drink. He felt my forehead and pronounced it 
hot and feverish — no surprise to me — and asked if I wanted him 
to see about a doctor. “Not yet,” I said, and after they left I dozed for 
awhile, lost in dark dreams until a knock on the door brought me to 
dizzy consciousness. 

It was David again, back from dinner and calling to see how I 
was. Annie and Leonard were there too, and they’d brought me a 
wonderful gift: a blender-type concoction made of orange juice, 
cream, and ice called a frappe. It was just what the doctor would 
have ordered, had there been a doctor, and I drank it down. My 
thirst was uncanny, far greater than I had known when we’d been 
lost between Iburou and Mozogo, and as the night wore on my 
throat was dry and aching, mouth foul-tasting and gummy. 

I heard music and voices from the downstairs bar, and schemed 
how I might buy another soda. I had some American cash, and my 
hopes elevated for a moment thinking I could change some of it. But 
I sighed with the futility of that idea, knowing they’d have no idea of 


274 



Neil Peart 


the rate. I dug in my wallet and found some stamps — maybe I 
could trade them for a drink? But no, they were from Cameroon, no 
use in Chad. There was only the water from that disgusting sink, 
probably straight from the Logone River, and though my desperate 
thirst was tempted, my uneasy stomach was not. 

That night was even longer than Ndiguina had been, as I 
sweated and writhed through brief stretches of oblivion, alternating 
with dashes across the roof, then back to lay in the darkness, tor- 
tured by thirst and painful cramps. The bar went silent after a time, 
and the three fan-blades circled slowly in the sweltering air, like the 
restless spinning of feverish thoughts. 


275 




Curious eyes in Hama Koussou. 


276 




1 ?arisia» <rsams 


As the slow fade from darkness to light began, the eerie wail of 
the muezzins sounded from the the twin minarets of a great mosque. 
From high above N’djamena, the call to prayer went out over the 
corrugated-metal rooftops. A gray light began to creep across my 
ceiling; stains and cracks came into focus on the wall; the turquoise 
fan kept whirling. I heard brooms and buckets downstairs, an early- 
morning cleanup crew in the bar, and, desperately thirsty, I began to 
scheme for a bottle of orange soda. I stood up experimentally, to see 
how I felt — not too bad, weak but not dizzy — and walked down- 
stairs. 

One of the sweepers opened the cooler and handed me a Fanta, 
and I told him I’d pay for it later. He didn’t seem to care, and a few 
minutes later I was back with the empty bottle to ask for another. 
When I heard the other cyclists stirring I borrowed some Chad 
francs from David to pay my “bar bill,” and as we carried our bags 
down and loaded the bikes, everyone was quiet, sharing my worry of 
what this day would bring. 

The first thing we needed was money. We knew that if we were 
allowed to leave, there’d be a departure tax to pay. When the bank 
was open we lined up at the foreign exchange counter, waiting for it 
to open; the other tellers were already busy in their glass cages. 
When our teller finally showed up, he couldn’t get the door open. 
Everyone in the bank tried to open it; one by one they came to the 
door and tried each of their keys, while we watched with impatient 
disbelief. Finally someone did get it open, but by then the teller had 
disappeared, perhaps gone home to get his keys. 

We had no time for WAWA that day; it was down to a matter of 
hours, and we still had to run the gauntlet of police and immigra- 
tion, not to mention any last-minute surprises at the airport. While 
we waited, I looked at the counter on the other side of the glass and 
saw a key resting innocently between the rows of rubber stamps. 


277 



The Masked Rider 


When I pointed it out to the neighboring teller, he shook his head 
and pointed to his money box, indicating that now they were search- 
ing for the key to the foreign exchange cashbox. Finally David gave 
up and went down the street to another bank with some of our 
American money, and came riding back with his thumb raised — 
success. 

We raced off to the embassy to see if the attache had learned 
anything helpful. The rest of us waited with the bikes while David 
went inside, but the attache's answer was inconclusive. He didn't 
think we needed any special permits; he thought we just had to go to 
the airport. Not very reassuring, but we decided to run with it — 
fingers crossed and adrenalin flowing. Outside the airport a road- 
block of heavily-armed soldiers stopped us with a gruff “Oil allez- 
vous?” but when I explained that we were catching a flight, they let 
us pass. Dozens of armed soldiers guarded the terminal as well, and 
they immediately began ordering us around: You can't bring bicycles 
in here; you must park them on the other side of building. 

But we're flying out with them. 

You must take them outside. 

But ... 

We started disassembling the bikes. Then another soldier came 
along and ordered us inside, to the area of the terminal we’d been 
headed for in the first place. Idle soldiers stood around and watched 
us take the bikes apart and pack them up. Two friendly locals, made 
conspicuous by not wearing uniforms, approached me and began 
asking for something, but I couldn't understand what they wanted. 
By their energetic miming and sound effects I finally understood — 
they wanted tire patches. Mine had all been used up during that 
frenzied ride out of Tburou, but I sent them to Leonard, who gave 
them the few he had left. 

Obstacle one: we checked in for the flight. Obstacle two: our 
bikes were taken by the baggage handlers. Obstacle three: Passport 
control. We paid our departure tax, the passports were stamped, and 
there was no mention of exit visas. 

What??!! After all that panic, all those people hassling us the 
previous afternoon, the guy running off with our passports — all of 
it had been meaningless ? I couldn't believe it. I was glad, but I 
couldn’t believe it. 


278 



Neil Peart 


Obstacle four: Security. The metal detector beeped as I walked 
through the doorframe. I took the coins out of my pocket. Beep. I 
took off my belt. Beep. My watch. Beep. Even my “Beyond War” but- 
ton. Beep. Finally they ran the hand-held detector over me. Nothing, 
until they got to my shoes. Beep. The metal soles in my cycling 
shoes. I took them off and walked through the archway. 

Obstacle five: The shakedown. Two plain-clothed guys pointed 
me into a curtained alcove, and began a strange interrogation, all 
about money. Did I have any French francs? Non. Was I sure? Oui. 
The clumsy interrogation went around and around the same subject, 
until I finally decided this was a good time not to speak French, and 
just stared at them dumbly until they gave up. 

David and Annie still had a couple of hours to wait for their Air 
Afrique flight, so I said goodbye to them across the barrier. After all 
this time, it was a strange farewell; we’d shared a month of adven- 
tures and hardships, but we’d been companions without really being 
friends. Unlike other partings I’ve faced at journey’s end, with 
former strangers now become true friends , this time there was no 
emotion, no embraces. Just a business-like handshake with David, 
and Annie’s always warm smile. Good luck on your travels etc. 

Leonard and I sat in the plastic seats in the departure lounge, 
breathing a little easier now. “Looks like we might actually make it,” 
I said, but he shook his head. “I want to hear that landing gear re- 
tract!” 

We heard Elsa’s voice rising from the curtained alcove. “I don’t 
understand you!” and Leonard turned to me and smiled. Then she 
came striding out, frowning, and sat beside us. Through the window 
we watched four fighter jets descend and land. French Mirages , 
Leonard told us. They were all painted in desert camouflage, and 
carried a battery of heavy missiles underneath the fuselage. 

Then the big silver and blue DC- 10 was on the ground, and we 
were walking across the tarmac to identify our luggage, for security 
reasons. I am haunted by that scene forever, because only a few 
months later a bomb exploded on that very flight, maybe even that 
very plane, thirty thousand feet above the desert in Niger. All 171 
people on board were killed, though again, little was heard in the 
western media. 

The engines whined, then roared, and the huge plane taxied 
down the runway and lifted into the air. A vibrating whirr shook the 


279 



The Masked Rider 


floor beneath my feet, and the landing gear retracted with a solid, 
satisfying thunk. 


Paris by night. The taxi glides through the glittering, crowded, 
opulent, beautiful City of Light. No other city affects me like Paris, 
and Paris has never affected me as now. I’ve never been happier to 
get anywhere in my life, even home. Aristotle says “Every rational 
activity aims at some end or good” — cycling in Cameroon had not 
been entirely rational, but Paris is the end, and it is good. My eyes 
flicker hungrily over everything: so many cars, so many buildings, 
so many lights. Shop windows full of things people can buy, streets 
full of people who can buy them. What an appetite I have! And my 
appetite is not for food, but for this unrestrained, bustling life. 

Across the Seine, rippling lights on the dark water. The loom of 
Notre Dame. Through the narrow streets of the lie de la Cite, the 
river again, and into St. Germain. Cars and lights and buildings and 
shop windows. Then the Rue des Beaux-Arts, and the little hotel. 
The porter takes my bicycle away — I won’t see it for a week and I 
don’t want to. The tiny elevator whisks me upward, then I’m walk- 
ing faster, around the circular atrium to the room. Then she’s in my 
arms and I squeeze until she laughs. “You made it.” 

I sit on a chair among the luxuriant furnishings and plush cur- 
tains, shaking my head at everything. “I made it.” 

Every luxury is a precious blessing to me, and I take nothing 
for granted. Hot baths, clean sheets, napkins and silverware, read- 
ing lights, newspapers, bookstores, oysters, sidewalk cafes, art gal- 
leries and museums. I turn my head to watch elegant cars whisper 
by, taxis with only one or two passengers, buses crowded but not 
crammed. I look at the faces, pleased with their confidence, their 
purposefulness, their pride. No one stares at me; no one calls names 
after me. No roadblocks or security checks. I can take a photograph 
of anything I want to, even walk down the street talking into my 
tape recorder if I feel like it. This is freedom ! This is life. 

I stare eagerly into the shop windows, wanting to buy some 
meaningless trifle. Even the cheap souvenir shops on the Rue de 
Rivoli seem wonderful to me; I feel the urge to buy some tacky plas- 
tic Eiffel Tbwer or Sorbonne T-shirt — just because I can. And all the 
“c” words: cornflakes, cognac, capuccino, chocolate, champagne — all 


280 



Neil Peart 


the small luxuries seem so wondrous, to think about as much as to 
consume. Not food for the stomach, but food for the spirit. 

And all of these responses add up to the one big “e” word: civili- 
zation. Our Western world is so easy to criticize, our fixation on so- 
called materialism so easily satirized, but those same critics always 
have their own material fixations, however they clothe them in 
spiritual raiment. “Beware the streak of crass Western materialism 
in development,” said the pope. If spiritualism rules the richest cor- 
poration in the world, and builds the very-material cathedrals which 
dominate our towns from Rome to Kumbo, what of the people whose 
money pays for these monuments? Food and shelter are certainly 
material things, and most of the faithful addressed by the Pope dur- 
ing his African visit were farmers prying their yams from the 
parched earth — if the rains allowed them to grow anything at all. 
Tfell them about materialism. 

Spirits in the material world, indeed we are. Our bodies, the im- 
perfect vehicles of movement and action, are material. The tools of 
the artist, musical instruments, paint and canvas, pen and paper, 
these are material things, but they are only raw materials waiting 
to be imbued with the spirit’s visions. Like all things, they are no 
better and no worse than what is done with them. Tb a farmer in 
Northern Cameroon, a Stradivarius might represent a good stock of 
kindling, for a fire to be lighted with pages torn from the Ethics. A 
piece of painted canvas might help to patch the roof, regardless of 
the “Vincent” scrawled in the corner. 

Oh, Theo, why should I change myself? I used 
to be very passive and soft-hearted, and quiet; I am 
so no more, but it is true I am no longer a child. 

These days are full of anguish that can neither be 
diverted nor stilled. I tell you, if one wants to be ac- 
tive, one must not be afraid of failures, one must not 
be afraid of making mistakes. Many people think 
they will become good by doing no harm; that's a lie, 
and you yourself used to call it a lie. It leads to 
stagnation, to mediocrity. 

You will say that I have no success. I don't 
care; to conquer or be conquered, in any case one 
is in emotion and action — and those are nearer be- 
ing the same thing than appears. Just dash some- 
thing down if you see a blank canvas staring at you 
with a certain imbecility. You do not know how para- 


25 1 



The Masked Rider 


lyzing it is, that staring of a blank canvas which says 
to the painter: You don't know anything. Many paint- 
ers are afraid of the blank canvas, but the blank 
canvas is afraid of the real passionate painter who 
dares. 

Life too always turns towards a man an infi- 
nitely vacant, discouraging, hopeless blank side on 
which nothing is written. But however vacant and 
vain and dead life may present itself, the man of 
faith, of energy, of warmth, who knows something, 
does not let himself be led astray. He steps in, and 
acts, and builds up — ruins , they call it. Let them 
talk, those cold theologians! 

Yes Vincent. Like the sign on the Cameroon bus: “Let Them 
Say.” We will take our material world and scratch the marks of our 
spirits upon it. We will take the masks that people put on us — the 
masks of White Man, Infidel, or Failure — and under those masks 
we will wear yet another, one of our own design. We will ride out 
into the world wearing those masks, knowing that when we reach 
our secret destinations, alone with Life, we can take them off. 

Have a drink. Get naked and party. 

Here’s to rational activity and the blank canvas. 

Here’s to us all. 

Look Out! Elephant Crossing . . . 


282 



Neil Peart 






Checking the map with the Chief of Tchevi. 








rTl 

Ir V 

1 „l 

« 

1 


"Cycling is a good way to travel anywhere, but especially in Africa. You are independent 
and mobile, and yet travel at people speed - fast enough to travel on to another town in 
the cooler morning hours, but slow enough to meet people: the old farmer at the roadside 
who raises his hand and says/You are welcome/ the tireless women who offer a smile to a 
passing cyclist, the children whose laughter transcends the humblest home.” 


So begins the text of Neil Peart's extraordinary journal about riding a bicycle on the roads 
and off the beaten track in West Africa. The Masked Rider is about the bike trek and the 
people who travel along with the author, including literary sidekicks Aristotle and Vincent 
Van Gogh, Sometimes it's the story of a tour of hell - Dante on a bicycle - as he suffers 
the pains of dysentery and stares down the muzzle of a drunk soldier's machine gun. Other 
times it's a journey of exalted discovery and African adventure of the highest calibre. 

Neil Peart is the drummer and lyricist of the legendary rock band Rush. 


ISBN 1-895900-02-6 


Cover design • Hugh Syme 


9 II 78 1 895 II 90Q026 11